Jun 23, 2009

Why US interference?

The winds of American military rhetoric have shifted again. Last week, Gen David Petraeus repeatedly hammered home the idea that the US army had little do with the Pakistan military’s war against militants in the Frontier province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata).
Although the US has delivered 100,000 rounds of ammunition and four cargo helicopters to Pakistan, allocated $700m dollars for the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund (PCCF), and millions more in humanitarian aid, Gen Petraeus insists that the ongoing military operation is ‘a Pakistani operation’.
Speaking at the headquarters of the US Central Command, the general said that Rah-i-Rast was the Pakistan Army’s ‘fight against extremism that they assess poses a threat against their very existence…. It’s not them fighting our global war on terror’. He went on to clarify that the US was assisting Pakistan, but not providing direct tactical or operational support or, more importantly, direct combat assistance. Ergo, Gen Petraeus reasoned, the US was not involved with or interfering in Pakistan’s struggle against militancy.
On a trip to Mardan earlier this month to visit people displaced by the military operation, US special envoy Richard Holbrooke toed a similar line. When asked about the US role in Pakistan’s humanitarian crisis, Holbrooke insisted that the US was merely donating money to the UN and other international aid agencies to boost their capability to address the plight of refugees in Pakistan. The US, he claimed, had no direct role in Pakistan’s problems.
This new line of rhetoric indicates that the US has finally realised that their explicit involvement in the affairs of other countries is counterproductive. Rather than reconfiguring Americans as heroes and saviours, the beneficiaries of US aid, intelligence and military supplies become subsumed in nationalist rhetoric. Again and again, US interference in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, and, of course, Pakistan has sparked concerns about the integrity of national sovereignty and the pitfalls of neo-imperialism. Local governments who deal with the Americans find themselves on the defensive, perceived by their polity as impotent and easily manipulated.
In this context, the recent performances in semantics by Petraeus and Holbrooke are to be welcomed. By leaving aside the language of global wars, cooperation, joint intelligence, strategic partnerships and geo-politics, the Americans are giving our government space in which to claim the fight against the Taliban as their own.
Sadly, actions speak louder than words. Even while the US Central Command was washing its hands off Pakistan’s military operation, the US State Department placed a telling phone call to NTT America, the company that runs the servers that host Twitter, a popular online micro-messaging system. Last week, in the midst of tumultuous, post-election street protests in Iran, the Obama administration asked Twitter to delay a temporary shutdown for maintenance purposes to ensure that Iranian supporters of opposition candidate Mir Hossain Mousavi could continue using the service to share news and spread information about protest rallies. The messaging system became a vital logistical tool for protesters once the Iranian government blocked websites, YouTube and social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. As such, the US government’s request to Twitter was a show of support for Iranians who rejected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election.
Not surprisingly, the Iranian government perceived the US’s action as an example of ‘intolerable’ meddling in the country’s internal affairs. Mousavi supporters, too, felt that the perceived US involvement in their protests, no matter how remote or indirect, had weakened the legitimacy of their demand for a recount and electoral accountability. Indeed, the Twitter debacle jeopardised President Barack Obama’s careful handling of the Iran election crisis — until the State Department picked up the phone, Obama had remained reticent on Tehran, pointing out that post-election turmoil was part of an important debate within Iran on the future of its leadership. The American veneer of indifference was shattered.Iran’s strong reaction to the news that the US State Department had in fact contacted Twitter should serve as a reminder to Pakistan that our government must clarify what constitutes American interference in Pakistani affairs. If the US is going to publicly distance itself from Pakistan’s fight against the Taliban, then the Pakistan government should set the terms for what entails sufficient distance, and what can be termed interference or involvement.
Clearly, few Pakistanis think that American cash alone is a form of ‘intolerable’ meddling. No one yet has raised objections to copious amounts of American aid, particularly the announcement of an additional $707m to address economic stability and help the IDPs.
The PCCF, however, raises different questions. Some of the money aimed at improving the Pakistan Army’s counter-terrorism tactics will go towards buying equipment such as night-vision goggles. But the fund also makes provisions for on-the-ground training, and US Special Forces are already honing the counter-insurgency skills of some Frontier Corps personnel in Balochistan. Does the physical presence of US troops on Pakistani soil constitute ‘direct’ or ‘combat’ assistance of the variety that Gen Petraeus insists the US is not providing Pakistan?
Or will the boundaries of US involvement be determined in the media sphere, as happened in Iran last week? The US is currently executing plans to jam illegal FM radio stations run by extremist clerics across the Frontier province and Fata. While in Mardan, Holbrooke argued that these illegal stations should be replaced by independent, Pushto-language radio stations — supported and funded entirely by the Pakistan government or licensed private sector companies. He rejected the idea of American media in the Frontier.
At the same time, the Pushto-language service of Voice of America was getting slammed in the US for airing interviews with Taliban commanders over the past few years. The radio service argued that the interviews were part of an effort to remain unbiased and disseminate news information. But American policy wonks and media analysts retorted that the station was obliged to win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of Pakistanis, even at the risk of coming off as an American propaganda outfit.
These debates indicate that although the US is cognisant of the pitfalls of backseat driving, it doesn’t know how to stay silent and let Pakistan — or Iran or Afghanistan — take the wheel. The only way we can dictate the extent to which US interference is appropriate is by charting our own course.

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