Nov 4, 2009

The ultimate defining moment

By Ikram Sehgal

The vain hope for meaningful and even-handed changes in our relationship with the US notwithstanding, some will still vehemently disagree with calling the visit a "defining moment." Given the rather tumultuous mutual history of trust deficit, there is reason to be skeptical about what is giving it that significance. What can really be achieved for the future in the span of three short days? Hillary Clinton's visit came at an interesting time internally for Pakistan, it could turn out to be of great importance for Pakistan that was envisaged by the Quaid, if not Pakistan as we know it presently.

The US secretary of state is no pushover. On the receiving end of airing of a barrage of pent-up grievances she gave back politely as good as she got. Over the years the US administration usually remains in sync, if not in agreement, with what is conveyed as the gospel truth by official Pakistan, even though there is "nothing official" (with apologies to Pepsi-Cola) about the survival instincts of a military (or in Pakistan's case presently, a civilian) dictator. Even though the process of the Kerry-Lugar Bill was initiated during the Republican administration as a bipartisan effort, for a change the Democrat Obama administration seems more sensitive to the plight of the common man in the streets of Pakistan.

Beginning with the panel discussion with the pick of our TV anchors, Hillary Clinton journeyed, both mentally and physically, into areas where our own "angels" fear to tread. No embassy in the world will be comfortable with senior functionaries of their government running wild attempting such interaction with a broad spectrum of our civil society. That reluctance is not due to security reasons alone. Diplomats usually like to keep things under tight management control, nothing should stray from the official laid-down script. It is quite apparent that the politically sensitive aides of Hillary Clinton from Washington DC had other ideas, exploiting the full potential of their politician US secretary of state.

Disagreement aired publicly is never comfortable. Hillary's body language suggested she was taken aback by the disconnect. The facts told to her differing substantially from what had been assiduously fed to her, courtesy of (Pakistan's?) ambassador in Washington DC, glib-talking, brilliant Hussain Haqqani. There was no public display of exasperation or frustration on her part. The residual anger among a broad spectrum of civil society in Pakistan is certainly known to US policy makers. Its depth has never been really gauged. However friend Hussain Haqqani rightly gauged the angry backlash in Pakistan and chose discretion over valour by not accompanying the highest US foreign policy official. Hillary did make an impact on Pakistanis, the question is, will what was said by Pakistanis have a lasting impact with her? And will it impact on US policy towards Pakistan? That crossroads of sorts by itself makes Hillary's visit a defining moment!

She came face to face with the real Pakistan, listening to the constant cacophony perhaps more coherently from the younger crowd. That should probably influence her thinking more than others. If the Pakistani youth feels hard done by, the US secretary of state will have reason to feel anguish about the future. This may be rather wishful thinking. Only days later the US showed that realpolitik is alive and well by accepting tainted Hamid Karzai with his million-plus well documented fraudulent votes running off as the "legal" president after Abdullah Abdullah opted out of the "run-off that never was," scheduled for public consumption on Nov 7. Abdullah's convenient withdrawal was probably part of greater deal where he becomes part of the future government (PM Abdullah? VP Abdullah?). Under President Obama, will the US continue to apply a different standard to the ideals it espouses for itself, invariably giving pragmatism precedence over idealism and morality in furthering its own strategic interests in the region, and in the world?

For his own failings (and that of Afghan soldiers who somehow always conveniently manage to avoid engaging in battle) Karzai never ceases to demonise Pakistanis and Pakistan, despite the fact that Afghanistan depends upon us for everything, this benevolent largesse impacting adversely economically on our population in many ways. Why should Pakistanis pay an economic price from their already depleted pockets for Afghans? Over three million refugees are willingly sheltered by us. This gives Pakistan a right to have an inherent voice in Afghanistan's future as no other nation around its periphery. Afghanistan, and the world, must be given a strong signal by stopping all transit trade except allowing essential food grains, and that also imported from outside Pakistan. Unless we really mean business Afghans will remain the absolute shameless ingrates they are. Let Afghanistan try and exist without Pakistan.

While we do face collateral damage as the terrorists create carnage and mayhem by callously attacking soft targets in population centres of Pakistan, this must not deter the Army from wiping out the Al-Qaeda network in South Waziristan, or this will mean surrendering to militancy. Having learnt lessons from Sri Lanka's elimination of terrorism by relentless carrying out operations against Tamil Tigers till Prabhakaran's death, the Pakistani Army is single-mindedly staying with their stated aim. Given that over 60 percent of the Sri Lankan officers' corps was trained by the Pakistani Army, there is a lot of irony in the situation. One would be very surprised if Zawahiri (and most Al-Qaeda hierarchy) are not netted and/or killed in the next few days. Guerrillas do not put up such stiff resistance as being witnessed unless they have reasons for doing so! If Osama Bin Laden is alive and well, he is certainly in "the unholy triangle" comprising Ladha, Makeen and Sararogha. Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs have been settled here for two decades. They provide the inner-circle protection, with Mehsuds on the outer circle. This country cannot remain hostage to those who subscribe to and thrive on corruption, it is immoral and it is wrong. There must be change at the top after the MQM's Altaf Hussain has, to his great credit, set the ball rolling. FATA's aftermath will also impact positively on Pakistan politics in the future. The ongoing battle inoculation has had a solitary effect on the rank and file of the Pakistani Army. History has shown that battle-hardened soldiers do not give sacrifices for the sake of legitimising corruption that the NRO represents, or my knowledge of history is flawed and the lessons drawn from it, incorrect. The political and military hierarchy have a moral responsibility to the nation to correct the great wrong that has been foisted on us by a combination of fraud and an extremely flawed version of democracy. The real "defining moment" has been bought by the blood of our soldiers.

The writer is a defence and political analyst. Email:

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