Posted by: sean | March 1, 2007

Bullying Pakistan?

Ken Silverstein has a piece about scapegoating Pakistan on Harper’s website:

It is now the conventional wisdom in Washington that American efforts to defeat Al Qaeda are being undermined by Pakistan. Vice President Dick Cheney made an unannounced trip to Islamabad Monday to deliver, wrote the New York Times, “an unusually tough message to Gen. Pervez Musharraf … warning him that the newly Democratic Congress could cut aid to his country unless his forces become far more aggressive in hunting down operatives with Al Qaeda.”

…[D]ifferent countries see things differently. Pakistan and the United States have conflicting priorities in terms of national security and very different definitions of what constitutes terrorism. The Bush Administration sees Islamic terrorism as a primary menace to American national security. The United States is concerned about threats emanating from Iraq and Iran as well as Afghanistan. But Pakistan, notes a RAND study from 2004, does not perceive a threat from Iran and Iraq. The country’s core security problems revolve almost exclusively around India, especially Kashmir. As to Afghanistan—Pakistan is highly uneasy about its loss of influence there over the past six years, especially now that its archenemy India has a close relationship with the American-backed Karzai government. So while the United States hopes for a stable Afghanistan with a strong central government, Pakistan prefers a weak government in Afghanistan that is dominated by Pashtuns.

…A working relationship with all Pashtuns is vital to Pakistan’s survival, so it’s hardly surprising that Islamabad has been far more reluctant to go after Taliban elements. As Milt Bearden notes, “Pakistan is convinced that we will leave them in the lurch no later than 2009, perhaps earlier. Thus they are unwilling to ‘commit suicide’ solely for American national interests.” But blaming Pakistan for failures against Al Qaeda is all the rage these days, even though it’s roughly equal, and misleading, to blaming Iran for the problems in Iraq.

I find this kind of silly, to be honest. Of course Pakistan has its own agenda, as does every country. But that’s not the point. The point is that the US gives tons of aid to countries like Pakistan, Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose policies (ISI support of the Taliban, Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and support of radical Wahabbis, respectively) are at odds with American interests, and also with American policy in the cases of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Financial and military support that’s not expressed as humanitarian aid is obviously part of a quid pro quo agreement, so in the case of countries like those mentioned or Egypt, for that matter, it makes sense that the US would have some influence in those places.

This is not to say that Washington’s interests should be at the top of the list of priorities for Islamabad, Cairo, West Jerusalem or Riyadh, far from it. The whole point is to find a compromise that benefits the interests of both countries, or ideally, the citizens of both countries. And the way that Pakistan has wielded the Taliban, is arguably not in the interest of the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan or the US. The only people it benefited were the Taliban cadres and some people in the ISI. One only has to remember when Taliban officials from the Ministry of Vice and Virtue drug Pakistani footballers off the field in Kandahar and arrested them during the match because they were wearing shorts to know that the Pashtun-led Taliban was not on as short a leash as the ISI thought. Steve Coll’s book, Ghost Wars also mentions Taliban plans to turn on their masters and change the center of gravity of the relationship between the two countries, making Pakistan more of a satellite of Afghanistan than the other way around.

The problem is that the US doesn’t often take other countries’ interests into consideration at all. So while I would agree with Silverman that the US should have a better look at the local context in Waziristan and Baghdad, for instance, before trying to force Musharraf or al-Maliki to do things that might be untenable for them, either politically or militarily speaking. But this does not mean that the US should just shrug its shoulders when one of its allies is doing something that is bad for both countries, just because the current regime thinks that the action is in its best interest.

After all, allies, like friends, are supposed to let each other know when they’re making mistakes, even when a country thinks those mistakes are paramount to following its national interests. So while the Bush administration was content to pillory de Villepin and Chirac during the buildup to war in Iraq, we now know that Washington would have done well to listen to the Elysée’s reasonable concerns. History is full of allies blindly supporting each other, like joining in an ill-advised bar fight started by your drunk friend: the UK and Australia in Iraq, France in Rwanda, South Africa in Zimbabwe.


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