October 20, 2010

The US-Pak gap

"I'm curious, though, to hear from my Islamabad-based blogging partner how he would square the circle facing U.S. policy-makers."

Right, well... hmm... I feel slightly fraudulent even assuming I can answer this question when the issue of Pakistan is befuddling lorry loads of eminent people even as I type.

Much is said about Pakistan, but I'm constantly saddened that so many innocent pixels are lost without good cause. Americans talk about what their country's policy should be towards Pakistan with almost as much vigour as Pakistanis when they talk about what their government should do about America. But none of the indignant laments get us any further to finding a way forward.

US commentators seem to see Pakistan through a very narrow time line that stretches as far back as 9/11 and as far forward as the end of the US involvement in Afghanistan. In turn, Pakistanis see their problem with extremism as starting with 9/11 and ending with the pullout of the last US soldiers from Kabul. Both views are as flawed as they are intertwined. Extremism has deep roots in Pakistan that were fed mainly by opportunistic politicians and army men while Pakistan's international friends looked away or actually helped. It's the results of that extremism that now draw the US to Afghanistan and what will continue to trouble it even when the last soldiers leave.

If no one objects, I'll take the medium to long term view of US policy towards Pakistan because the short term is dominated by Afghanistan and the tone will be set by American efforts to talk to elements of the Taliban and withdrawing in the next year or two. If the US wants to talk to the Taliban and relies on Pakistani help to do so, some might well see that as a victory of sorts for the Pakistani military's decision not to go hard after the Afghan Taliban. However, it would have come at a massive cost in terms of the violence and instability spreading now throughout Pakistan. However, even if the gamble is seen to have paid off and Pakistan gets to act as mediator and ends up with a fairly friendly regime residing in Kabul, that will not be the end of it, for Pakistan or the United States.

At the risk of sounding reductive, I would summarise the present situation thus: Pakistan, and much of the Muslim world, are largely rural landscapes with a fast-spreading media industry. In the various bits of travelling I've done in Pakistan, Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East, I've found that most people in rural areas have heard little of the outside world. In most cases 9/11 means little and America, the UK, France and Germany are an incoherent jumble of places ruled by a king who lives in a palace called London. Abu Muqawama is the resident expert on COIN, insurgency and guerrilla war, but whenever I hear of a new attack planned by militants on civilians in the States or Europe, I can't help but thinking that it sounds like the kind of action insurgents have under taken since the dawn of warfare: attack a larger power in the name of honour/justice etc and provoke a disproportionate backlash that rallies the undecided masses around your cause.

i still marvel in horror at the ability of extremists against all conventional logic (Western assets, Muslim views) to make their narrative of events sound the more plausible to the increasing number of people becoming integrated into the global media and political landscape. This is more to do with the failure of Muslim leadership and the misdirection of Western efforts than the actual truth or abilities of the extremists.

Keeping that in mind; probably the most talked about issue when it comes to Pakistan is "the nukes. Conventional wisdom says; Pakistan deserves attention because of its nuclear status.

"It's all about the nukes."

Now, actually, that statement would probably be agreed on by your typical informed Pakistani and American, but from two totally different positions. Many commentators over in Washington, London, Brussels etc regularly paint a doomsday scenario that involves wild-eyed bearded men grabbing nukes and running off into the mountains. Whereas in Pakistan, the newspaper reading public is convinced the US is constantly planning to send black-clad Blackwater special forces to grab Pakistan's Islamic bomb and fly off in helicopters in the direction of Israel or India.

In truth, the problem crystallising in Pakistan is more about gradual state breakdown, ungoverned spaces, increased regional instability, internal chaos and the spiralling of events in such a fashion that the extremist fairytale starts resembling a plausible reality. It's depressingly more likely that someone like Faisal Shehzad succeeds in taking advantage of the increasing writ of militant groups  to attack and kill people in America, India or elsewhere with regular arms and not nuclear weapons. In this scenario we could expect some sort of action on Pakistani soil and/or more Quran burning etc in the US and Europe, which would then play into the "War on Islam" talk.

Basically, nuclear weapons need not fit into a nightmare scenario facing Pakistan. Yes, it's worth worrying about, but it's not the start an end of the threat the situation in Pakistan poses to the region and the wider world.

Extremism: The well-repeated view in Pakistan on violence and extremism within the country is that it started with the US war in Afghanistan and will end with it. The corresponding misunderstanding in the West is that Pakistan's secret cabal of generals are al Qaeda's ideological comrades and the population is genetically prone to extremism.

Pakistan's problems with extremism will not end with the US-led involvement in Afghanistan because the problem did not start with 9/11. The Pakistani establishment has been rather cynically manipulating religious sentiment even before they had a state to rule. The concept of Pakistan was based on the idea that the Muslims of the subcontinent (the former rulers) would lose their identity and any political influence in Hindu-majority India. The issue there was self determination - a burning concern for minorities through the ages. The point here is not to argue whether the sentiment was justified, or whether a separate state was the appropriate answer (these are issues that South Asia specialists devote libraries of books to) but to make the point that Pakistan was built on the fear of a diverse set of Muslim societies who were told that being Muslim meant being Pakistani and that survival was built on being the "purest" Muslims they could be. In a feat of myopia challenged only by US-led lack of planning in post-invasion Iraq and Afghanistan that vague but over-exploited sentiment was never allowed to mature through the natural engagement of the public. Once the establishment of the state was achieved, the religious rhetoric was left aside in favour of more secular-leaning public pronouncements.

But it was too late by then. Too many promises had been made and politicians and generals were finding it too tempting to resist playing on religious sentiment for short term gains. Every Pakistani leader has done this at one time or another. In 1965, the largely non-religious military ruler Ayub Khan found himself running against Fatima Jinnah, the sister of Pakistan's founder. Shamelessly, Ayub Khan leaned on pronouncements by religious leaders that a woman can't be head of a Muslim country. Pakistan's military (led in those days by many a Sandhurst-trained whisky lover) used Jihad as a rallying cry in 1948. From their point of view, it was a cheap and effective way of raising manpower; a point of view that has not changed much. At the same time, the various decisions made in India and Pakistan coupled with the ideological underpinnings of their separation, ensured that hostility would endure and that in Pakistan, it would take on a religious dimension.

China vs US: Pakistan's leadership decided pretty early on that it would need big power patronage to challenge India. After the waning of British military influence around the globe, the US became the best bet and the arrangement served both partners. Now, it's common to hear Pakistanis talking about China being a better friend to Pakistan. The idea is based on the Pakistani perception that the country has been a steady Western ally for decades, but with little reward. The country (not the leadership) has paid dearly for the Afghan war and Iranian-Western hostility has soured relations between Iran and Pakistan, where economic logic would suggest Pakistan invest in cordial relations. The US-Pakistani relationship is a long one, and unfortunately, from the Pakistani point of view the US has used Pakistan like hired muscle in a turf war, and when the battle was won turned its back on the battered and jobless roughneck.

However, in seeking to play the enforcer role, Pakistan has neglected its long term interests. The Pakistani establishment whether political, bureaucratic or military - and this is my own opinion - seems to have become wedded to the idea that to survive against India it must enter into a Yakuza-style relationship as the kobun to a big power's oyabun. Be it Britain, the United States or China, Pakistan feels that if it swears loyalty it should be taken care of. When Pakistan feels betrayed, it goes rogue. And as Pakistan has realised more than once that the United States' interest waxes and wanes it turns to another cheap short-term solution, Jihadi militias, secret nuclear programmes and proliferation. 

China's relatively good standing in Pakistan is based on the perception that China is a loyal ally - an image that China has worked to establish across the region. But again, this is a short-term solution that might seem to work for now but probably wont in the future as interests and priorities shift. The cracks are already present. As I recently heard from a former Pakistani official, the much vaunted free trade agreement is far much more in China's favour than Pakistan's. A few well-connected Pakistani businessmen-politicians will do well from the deal, but in essence it allows Chinese goods to destroy Pakistan's fragile industrial base.

Pakistan is not alone in seeking to sell its geography or assets to a larger power in the hope of survival and largess. Arab Western allies countries have done something similar for decades. In each case, the desirability of the vassal-like alliance is down to the difficulty of enacting an alternative; the development of a strong economy built on a stable political structure. If Pakistan was able to encourage economic activity beyond the narrow class of well-connected elites, and raise income tax to cover its expenditures it would have less need to seek fickle patrons. But building a political-social consensus has eluded Pakistan as it has other states in the region.

At the same time, Western powers have been unabashed at utilising Pakistan's failings for their own short-term goals. Yes, the USSR was humiliated, but look where we are now. 9/11 left Pakistan knowing it HAD to side with the United States. But the idea that reliance on Jihadi militias was a necessity ran deep through the state. Musharraf carried out a couple of purges of ISI. But as time went on, the state came to the conclusion that the US would ultimately withdraw from Afghanistan and leave Islamabad and Kabul to fend for themselves. In that scenario, Pakistan would be left having amputated its own arm with a backyard that was increasingly becoming the playground of its archenemy.

Having said all this, the basis for a stronger relationship between the US and Pakistan is there. Relations were good in the past (for example, see here). And they should be in the future. A Pakistan that becomes the Kobun of China is not in Pakistani or US interests. In my view a number of things need to happen that are beyond the experience of traditional state-to-state relations. Firstly, the US could well benefit from developing a relationship with Pakistani civil society with a view to strengthen the country (not necessarily the elites). This means youth groups that agitate against corruption, educational and health charities that foster greater social cohesion by bringing together Pakistanis from the various ethnic and sectarian backgrounds. At the same time, improving the economy should not just be focused on making the rich richer (as is usually the case with free trade agreements) but empowering regular Pakistanis to set up small to medium size business and make them grow and export. Pakistan's bureaucracy needs help to transform itself to an asset for governance, not a hindrance. These are not things that necessarily require lots of money, but they need thought and clever application. Of course, these are things that Pakistan's rulers should have done themselves. But right now that point has become academic.

In short, the challenge for US diplomacy is to help Pakistan normalise and stabilise. To do so will require subtlety, sensitivity as well as toughness. The key here is not money, but intelligently applied effort. In the past US political efforts had a specific goal (for example, fighting Communisim) and Washington needed specific things done which necessitated a relationship with the actors that could make them happen. This meant the US developed a relationship with the military and sometimes dealt with politicians. US policy in the future, if it is to be successful, needs to engage with the public. A good starting point to achieve this is to understand why the relationship went sour, and I think this is something US diplomats working in Pakistan understand. The challenge is to convert that quickly developing understanding into positive action.

At the moment, US public diplomacy in Pakistan is patchy. But to be fair, the task is immense. There are constant stories published in the media that paint any contractor, even one providing translation or financial services, as members of Blackwater hit teams. Security considerations make it difficult for diplomats to go out and about and make friends. Also, the infamous Pakistani bureaucracy makes getting visas for staff and getting staff out to visit outlaying areas a complicated process. But sometimes, too often, mistakes are made that just need not happen. I once saw a testy verbal altercation between US embassy people and staff at a well-watched Pakistani channel. The diplomats were bringing a senior US official to appear on a popular show but turned up late. The channel's staffers expressed their frustration and the diplomats did likewise. In the end, the official did not appear on the show.

The atmosphere of animosity makes bad situations worse and needs to be resolved (or at the least overcome) if the US is to deal with specific issues. And they don't come more specific than India. The key to a more stable Pakistan is a normalised relationship with its neighbour. A couple of Pakistani governments have tried to negotiate with India over Kashmir in the past but as opportunities have been missed and the decades roll on, the task becomes harder. Moves towards a resolution will unsettle vested interests and differences of opinion will inevitably be played out in the public domain. But this is where political capital with ordinary Pakistanis will be best used in the long term.