Mar 24, 2009

Second place for America in Pakistan

It is too easy to forget the bad news, while Pakistanis bask in the collective glory of the restored judiciary in this country. The chief justice’s resumption of duties at the Supreme Court may be one of this country’s greatest democratic achievements, but it is an achievement that has clearly gone unnoticed in important places. When it comes to understanding Pakistan, Washington DC remains out of touch and out of date, and as a result, it will continue to be mostly out of luck.In what has to be a most apt crystallisation of America’s problem in Pakistan, the US government thought it was a good idea to congratulate the Pakistani people for their Obama-moment by sending new CIA boss Leon Panetta to Islamabad. Cynics will be reminded of Al Qaeda’s racist rant at the American people after President Barack Obama had won the November 2008 US election. It may have been what comes naturally for medieval cavemen holed up in Afghanistan since 1979, but it didn’t make Al Qaeda very popular in the US. Sending a parade of bureaucrats and negotiators to Pakistan to arm-twist, bribe, scare, cajole and caress the Pakistani establishment (including the PPP and its leadership) to “do more” may be what comes naturally to Washington DC, but it is not going to win over the Pakistani people.Sending the head of the CIA to Pakistan the day that Pakistan’s chief justice takes back the office that was his all along is so tone-deaf, it makes the US government seem alien, cold and foreign. This is no way to actualise President Barack Obama’s vision of American public diplomacy in the 21st century. All the money at Fort Knox, and all the international political capital of the Barack Obama presidency cannot overturn and undermine the kind of message that a CIA boss’ visit sends to Pakistan.Pakistan needs its friends to share the best that they have to offer. Instead of putting the heart of what makes America great (and what is making Pakistan great, if only for a fleeting moment) at the centre of its conversation with Pakistan, the US government keeps focusing on ugly. Putting terrorism at the forefront of this strange and tortured relationship has skewed the US view of what to do with Pakistan entirely. Pakistan may need Apache helicopters and perhaps its own Predator drones, to win the next battle against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But if this is really a war, then why is the focus so intensely narrow? Pakistan’s needs are not rocket science. At a time when the America’s aspirations for Pakistan should be amplified by voices from the Peace Corps, the ACLU, the NAACP, and the Salvation Army, it’s a peculiar thing that US wish lists and messages are delivered by stone-cold diplomats like Richard Holbrooke and spymasters of Leon Panetta’s ilk. Mr Panetta’s ilk of course is not spy-master at all. He is the quintessential American public policy hack. This makes the timing and substance of his visit even more peculiar. Panetta understands democracy better than most. He was a US Congressman for 16 years. He was the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) where he put in motion the eventual achievement of Bill Clinton’s balanced budget. Between 1994 and 1997 he was chief of staff at Bill Clinton’s White House. The Lewinsky affair taking place right under his nose notwithstanding, Leon Panetta, more than most American bureaucrats and politicians, should be able to see what Pakistan’s priorities should be. In fact, Mr Panetta’s own words demonstrate his deep understanding of the democratic process quite well. This is what he said to, about the debate over the US bailout in September 2008: “Democracy can be ugly, depressing and frustrating but it is what determines our fate as a nation. We govern by leadership or crisis. Unfortunately, today, we largely govern by crisis. If there is to be a way forward in resolving this crisis, it will only happen when the leadership of the nation, both Republican and Democratic, decide that governing is more important than winning”.Mr Panetta sure is onto something. Governing is more important than winning. Hallelujah. Can I get an Amen? You sure can in Pakistan. Just one year ago, on March 9, 2008, Mr Panetta wrote an op-ed for the Monterey County Herald, titled, “Americans Reject Fear Tactics”, in which he argued that “Fear exacts a terrible toll on our democracy”. And there’s more. On November 11, 2001, right after the 9/11 attacks, Mr Panetta was almost prophetic, warning his people… “The simple mission in this war is to get those involved in the Sept 11 attack. The danger is that the objective could become entangled in an all-out war on the Taliban, a tenuous relationship with rebel forces, the challenge of future nation-building after the war, the potential of a prolonged ground war threatened by weather and increased casualties, Middle East politics, and questions about the role of Saddam Hussein”.Mr Panetta is not a typical American public policy hack. He is a genius. After having met President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, and the range of military and intelligence folks that make important decisions, Mr Panetta probably has more questions than he has answers. The same can be said for the President Obama’s Pakistan team. Adding to the confusion of Pakistan of course is the confusion of this team itself. The ambassador, Ann Paterson, is a Republican appointment, the deputy minister, Mr Holbrooke, is a negotiator given an administrator’s job, the big picture thinker, Bruce Riedel, is an analyst, given a vision-definition job, and the CIA chief is a public policy guru being asked to reform US intelligence. This is surely not what Doris Kearns Goodwin’s advocacy of a team of rivals was meant to produce.The answer of course has been in Pakistan all along. For two years, Pakistan’s most important demographic, its urban middle class raged a peaceful and disciplined war for justice. The military was brought to its knees, the capitalists and industrialists jumped aboard quickly, the fading left found new life in the vocals of Laal, the fading right wing of Qazi Hussain found momentary respite before its eventual extinction, the naive politics of Imran Khan found perhaps more than just a second wind — it found an existential issue to live and die for, the centrist opposition of the Sharifs found a moral basis beyond their quest for office, and feudal politicians resisted till the last, but eventually caved.If America was looking for an effective instrument to fight the war on terror decisively and aggressively, the gift horse has been staring it in the mouth. Yet the American response to the movement was always perceived to be muted and self-conscious. The American position was perceived by the Pakistani people to be in pursuit of narrow, short-term interests that would be threatened by an independent judge who was keen on civil rights. What a tragic irony.Hillary Clinton still does not have an undersecretary for Public Diplomacy, which might explain in part, but certainly not in full, why a Democratic administration, with Obama on top, Hillary Clinton at State and thoughtful folks all around, is still so badly out of step with the perceptions game in Pakistan.For eight years, the US has consistently got the answer to the core strategic question wrong. A handful of dead Al Qaeda staffers are in fact not worth a complete loss of credibility in the world’s second largest Muslim nation. Each drone attack and CIA visit eats away at what little credibility the US has on the Pakistani street. The threat of the Taliban to the Pakistani state is surely serious. But this is a threat that will ultimately have to be dealt with by Pakistanis. If the lawyers’ movement is anything to go by, the evil of the Taliban has little chance of overwhelming the good of the Pakistani people. The more urgent long-term threat is the alienation of middle Pakistan from America altogether. Such alienation is unnatural, and dangerous. Courting Iran, and bedazzling Al Arabiya, while dropping bombs on FATA and threatening more of the same over Balochistan is surely no way to mitigate against this threat. Pakistan is the grand prize of the Muslim world. And the urban middle class is the grand prize of Pakistan. And there are no points for second place. Mosharraf Zaidi

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