Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sidelining the Army

Just got wind of an article published last week in the Guardian by Simon Tisdall about the Kerry-Lugar bill.  It may sound like old news but there are some key arguments still to be made about all of this.  Mr. Tisdall is very critical of Kerry-Lugar, suggesting that the U.S. is acting like a colonial power by trying to force reform down the throats of Pakistani authorities.  "The rumbling row over a $7.5bn, five-year US aid package is a case in point," he writes.  "Imperious conditions attached to the bill by a Congress reluctant to send more unaccounted billions "down a rat hole", as Democrat Howard Berman charmingly put it, were condemned as insulting and colonialist in Pakistan."  The underlying thread of his position is that Pakistan, as a crucial ally in the war on terror, must be dealt with gently, that the U.S. is to blame for the nation's instability and therefore the U.S. should be prepared to adopt any means which will achieve the desired end of defeating the militant threat there. 

I've written elsewhere about Pakistan's complicity in creating the situation it now finds itself in.  Well before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the Pakistani military was setting the stage for the militant threats it faces today.  Going further back in history, we see the role the U.S. played also, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the support it provided to the military regime of General Zia ul Haq.  Mr. Tisdall's argument, perhaps unknowingly, supports that same failed policy - of backing self-interested military leaders in the pursuit of narrow, and ultimately destructive, national interests.  It is Bush policy all over again.  And we know how that turned out: $10 billion handed over to the Musharraf military regime; $10 billion that disappeared into the "rat hole."

President Obama's administration appears less inclined to trust Pakistan's military (we should keep in mind the current Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was hand-picked by Musharraf).  It is a bold move to try to sideline the army in Pakistan, fraught with dangers, not the least of which is another military coup.  But it is a necessary step.  The war in Pakistan will only be won if and when civilian authorities are the dominant, trusted institution in Pakistan, not the army.   

"By linking the cash to tighter civilian control of Pakistan's military, Washington was trying, clumsily, to strengthen Asif Ali Zardari's government. But it achieved the exact opposite. The president was accused of failing to defend the country's sovereignty, much as he has failed to halt escalating American cross-border air raids, and the occasional covert ground incursion, on targets inside Pakistan."

The alternative is rather less palatable - a nation perpetually run by a military deep-state.  "Clumsy" though it might be, Washington's desire to strengthen civilian governance in Pakistan is the right thing to do.  Keeping watch over how that government spends U.S. taxpayer dollars is necessary considering Pakistan's shady track record with donated funds.   The "opposite"effect was  inevitable in light of the over-arching ground realities inside Pakistan: the public opinion backlash, based on my own discussions with Pakistani journalists, was manufactured by the army.  They pursued a vigorous media campaign during the weeks and months after the proposed bill was made public.  Most Pakistanis have never read the bill so their opinion was easily swayed by the negative media coverage.  I have read the bill and what it sounds like to me is that the cat is now out of the bag, claws drawn; the U.S. has sent a message to Pakistan's military: no more games.

Still, it is an incontestable fact that distrust of the U.S. since the invasion of Afghanistan has skyrocketed.  And as Mr. Tisdall points out, U.S. drone strikes have contributed to the negative perceptions.  But rather than look at these as isolated events, we need to view them as trends.  In a blog post on the Threat Matrix, Alexander Mayer points out that in 2009, the trends appear to be reversing:  while anti-American attitudes have remained unchanged, support for the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan has plummeted.  Mr. Mayer correctly says that it is perceptions which guide attitudes so while the facts behind U.S. drone strikes are hard to come by (actual civilian casualties, etc), the facts of the threat to Pakistan posed by the Taliban have come into clear focus over months of violent attacks and mounting civilian deaths.  Moreover, Pakistanis don't question who the U.S. is targeting when it fires hellfire missiles from unmanned aircraft; they question the collateral damage these strikes cause.  And incidentally, the Pakistani government and military are fully aware of "American cross-border air raids, and the occasional covert ground incursion"; in fact, they quietly support those actions.  The issue here has less to do with sovereignty, in the eyes of everyday Pakistanis as well, as it does with the loss of innocent lives.

Perceptions are changing.  Taliban suicide bombers are killing vastly more civilians than U.S. drone attacks.   The Obama administration is determined to keep the trend going, pumping hundreds of millions into "cultural understanding" programs at its embassy in Islamabad (see an earlier post for more on that). But distrust of the U.S. is not going to go away any time soon.  Rampant anti-Americanism in Pakistan is a complex affair.  It's fashionable to hate America these days.  But it's also fashionable to be American.  Millions of Pakistani Dr. Jekylls are battling the Mr. Hydes in them.  The tendency to blame the U.S. for all of Pakistan's ills is, I believe, a kind of psychological projection.  It is easier to blame the Other, that abstract apparition floating somewhere in the ubiquitous aether, than to turn the mirror inward.

What Pakistanis would see there is not a very pretty sight.  Their nation is in ruins, led by the same corrupt politicians who have for decades acted like sultans rather than representatives of the people.  But they are democratically elected leaders and thus are the political expression of the people's will.  What does that say about the people?  The Obama administration, rather than pandering to the military elite, has decided to deal directly with the democratically elected government.  Yes, it is corrupt, hence the strict conditions placed on aid.  But this isn't a question of sovereignty; it is a question of prudence.


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