Anyone here been to Pakistan and speaks English?

January 14, 2011

cricket  refugeeU.S. Vice President Joe Biden made a rather odd comment during his visit to Pakistan this week.  “We want what you want: a strong, stable, democratic Pakistan,” he told a news conference, according to the Washington Post.  “We wish your success because it’s in our own interest.” 

It was  not that he was wrong to deny accusations that the United States is out to destabilise Pakistan – a conspiracy theory fuelled by confusion over U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, which to many Pakistanis seems so irrational that they assume there must be a darker plan behind it. Nor that he was wrong to promote democracy — although the United States has had a track record of backing military rulers in Pakistan when it suits them.

It was more in the choice of language — not necessarily Biden’s strong point. It left you wondering which audience he was appealing to when he said, “we want what you want”.

To popular sentiment, which at the moment is running high? But it is not about the need for democracy, but about defending the honour of the prophet Mohammed against perceived western-driven attempts to amend provisions in the Pakistan Penal Code imposing the death penalty for anyone believed to have insulted him.  Religious parties have been able to bring thousands out into the streets to defend Pakistan’s so-called blasphemy laws, after the murder of Punjab governor Salman Taseer by his own security guard over his opposition to these legal provisions.

And while many have rightly pointed out that the religious parties are rarely able to garner more than a few percent of the votes in elections, journalist Mosharraf Zaidi notes that this should not be taken to mean that their views do not enjoy much deeper support in a society which has been becoming increasingly conservative.

“Though the Pakistani right wing is simply instrumentalising Islam, it is tapping into and channelling a political and social force whose appeal and power is unquestionable. Sure, it is unable to translate this appeal into electoral outcomes – but that is because this appeal is not located in the disbursement of patronage, or in administrative prowess. Pakistanis vote for the PPP, the PMLs, the MQM and ANPs because of the certainty that these groups can disburse resources as patronage,”  Zaidi wrote. “In total contrast, it is clear that the religious right wing in Pakistan, while electorally impotent, has tremendous appeal.”

In Pakistan, people are not out demonstrating for democracy — it is too easy for them to blame their democratically elected government for all the ills facing the country from war in Afghanistan to a collapsing economy to devastation wreaked by last summer’s floods. A speech by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, condemning Taseer’s killing and delivered to a packed memorial ceremony in London, caused barely a ripple in Pakistan.

So when Biden says, “we want what you want”, does he understand the extent to which popular sentiment diverges from the U.S. vision of how it would like to see Pakistan — as a stable, secular, capitalist western-style democracy? Do the Americans, for all that they share with the Pakistani elite a common language in English, actually get Pakistan? Do they understand the forces that meant that Taseer’s death was celebrated rather than mourned?

That’s a terribly important question, since the entire U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan depends on it. Lean on Pakistan too hard, and you risk winning the battle in Afghanistan and losing the war in Pakistan. Leave it alone on its current trajectory and you lose anyway, both the battle and the war.

Then there was the U.S. State Department saying on January 6 that the Pakistan government was making a mistake to reverse fuel tax rises. Whether that decision was right or wrong, I did wonder whether Washington was up to speed on what was at stake. Without the reversal of the fuel tax rises, the PPP-led government might have collapsed, leading us into uncharted territory. Elections would have been held at a time of deep instability; they would likely have been won by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, a man disliked by the Pakistan Army. They would have been dominated by a debate in which the religious right has the wind in its sails. Had Washington worked through the possible scenarios when it condemned the fuel tax decision?

And when Biden made his comment about democracy, what about the Pakistan Army, who are the real decision-makers when it comes to foreign and security policy? The army has shown no inclination to take over the country, but nor has it historically been a champion of democracy.

And then of course there is Afghanistan. U.S. policy still rests on the assumption that Pakistan might eventually be persuaded to turn on the Afghan Taliban.

As described by Steve Coll late last year, “After the confusion over the original July 2011 drawdown date, Obama’s team is self-consciously signalling to Afghans, Pakistanis, and the Taliban themselves that it is U.S. policy to ensure that the Taliban will never return to power. ”

Yet the Pakistan Army will never do anything that it believes will threaten the country existentially — and turning on the Afghan Taliban in such a way that it leaves Afghanistan open to Indian influence would be seen as existential.  Besides that, as far as I understand from my own conversations, Pakistan genuinely believes the Taliban are stakeholders in the Afghan conflict, and a settlement cannot be achieved without them being involved in some way.  Expecting Pakistan to do something that it sees as not only against its national interests but also irrational is, for want of a better word, odd.

So on what basis do U.S. and Pakistani interests converge so that “we want what you want”?  

The late Afghanistan and Pakistan envoy Richard Holbrooke may have got it right when he said of the United States and Pakistan:  “We can’t align our interests exactly, because they live in a different space, and their history is defined by their relationship with India  . . . The one thing I believe we can do with Pakistan is to try to reach a strategically symmetrical view on the danger posed by Al Qaeda and its allies. That’s the proximate strategic goal.”

Anything else, given the way Pakistan is going at the moment, is probably based on wishful thinking.

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