When I was younger, my family would visit Pakistan during summer vacations. In the teeming port city of Karachi, I often went with my uncle to the local bazaar, where merchants and browsers haggled fiercely over prices underneath tan tents.
To conceal my American upbringing, I wore pants in the oppressive heat (shorts were derided as “underwear” at the time), grew my hair out of its crew-cut shape, and avoided slipping into English. If the merchants pegged me as a foreigner, my uncle warned, they would be less willing to field questions about their wares and more eager to sell them at high prices.
Today, American leaders surveying options in the region display even less prudence than a child in an unfamiliar marketplace. They openly speak the language of violence, fail to ask necessary questions, and evince little concern about the costs of their decisions.
Barack Obama, emulating previous Democrats’ attempts to outflank Republicans from the right on foreign policy, calls the Pakistan-Afghanistan border the “central front in the war on terror” and pledges to send more troops. John McCain, a modern-day Captain Ahab if there ever was one, soon followed suit with vows to hunt down bin Laden at “the gates of hell.” Secretary Gates, whose military boasts a budget bigger than the next 21 nations’ combined, announced a $20 billion effort to erase enemies who have danced circles around his army in $2 sandals.
In a sense, the proposed “soft surge” is understandable. The Iraq disaster has made almost any military venture seem wise by comparison, and no one doubts that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are gaining ground quickly in the tribal belt.
But in pressing and prodding Pakistan to take greater military action alongside America, U.S. leaders reveal just how little they know about the country and the path to lasting peace.
Does the civilian government — whose “cooperation” we seek in the intensified fight — possess any real authority? What are the priorities of Pakistan’s perennially-looming institution, the army? Why should ordinary Pakistanis back an escalating war against some of their own?
Failing to pose — let alone answer — such basic questions is an open invitation to a second Iraq.
The civilian leadership’s wavering commitment in the war has American elites seething. Unable to fathom why their Pakistani “allies” do not advance like pawns in a game of chess, they miss the larger point: there is no chessboard.
A nation of 170 million people, Pakistan is deeply fractured, war or no war. Loosely bound together only by religion, the people are separated by region, culture, language, and ethnicity. Sindhis, Balochis, Pashtuns, and Punjabis are generally more concerned with local and tribal rather than national interests.
Non-Punjabis harbor bitterness toward Punjab for its unequal dispensation of resources and its command of the army — an army which lost half the country in an unjust campaign against Bengalis in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971.
Most Pakistanis are worried about their immediate survival, which the federal government does little to address. The literacy rates stand at 55% and 29% for men and women, respectively. People depend heavily on local contacts and connections, with little sense of allegiance to the federal government.
This is true even among the middle class. Housing, university positions, and government jobs all depend heavily on local ties. Even the smallest matters do not escape the long shadow of nepotism: for one trip back home on the nationally-owned airline, my father had to rely on the favors of a family connection just to make sure our seats on the plane were not “given away” to someone else. My father found the whole affair unpalatable, but in the absence of honest government, what are the alternatives?
None are offered by Pakistan’s present leadership. Though it never ceases to remind anyone within earshot of its “democratic” credentials, the “new” government would be mistaken for a troupe of rotating circus clowns anywhere else. After throwing Musharraf overboard with threats of corruption charges, the leaders of the two main parties, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari, recently split because of a dispute over judges who might confront Zardari with — what else — corruption charges. Sharif, dislodged from power by Musharraf in a bloodless coup nine years ago, has himself faced corruption charges.
The scene is so dispiriting that much of the middle class simply ignores politics altogether. My mother’s side of the family, all educated and solidly middle-class, have to my recollection never evinced interest in any of the parties in light of the transparent hankering for power displayed by the politicians.
Against this backdrop, the government’s cachet among its people is limited. The notion that such a fragile institution, beset by incompetence, invisibility, and cronyism, can simply wave its hands in the air and convince its citizens to become an appendage of the U.S. “war on terror” is a wild fantasy.
The government’s ability to make a case for war is also hampered by the intelligence service (ISI) and its military sponsor — another major organ of power the U.S. has failed to understand.
Just after September 11th, understanding was irrelevant: America handed Musharraf an ultimatum to back the “war on terror” and he complied. But all that is old news now and America finds itself frustrated with the Pakistan army’s ambivalence in serving as America’s most poorly-paid mercenary force.
The army’s stance is prompted by two concerns: its own interests and the nation’s interests, which are not identical but nonetheless overlap.
As is well known, the ISI developed its prestige and power during the tenure of Islamist military dictator Zia ul-Haq, who found generous American backing and financial support for his role in the jihad against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. Less well known is the timing of American-backed intervention: six months before the Soviets actually invaded, when the fledgling Marxist government was trying to enact crucial reforms to protect women and wrest natural resources from the control of warlords.
Once the Soviets were defeated, America’s interest in the country’s “freedom” evaporated and it began lending tacit support to the ISI’s backing of the Taliban.
Like any unaccountable institution, the ISI developed breathtaking rationales for defending the indefensible. According to the doctrine of “strategic depth,” arch-rival India had to be contained, and its access to Central Asia curtailed, through the insertion of Islamist proxies in this key conduit country.
Sections of the military still cling to this doctrine despite its manifest absurdity. Far from achieving strategic depth in Afghanistan, Pakistan has become a victim of the strategic depth achieved by Islamists, who have struck its soldiers and assets with a level of impunity India would dare not dream of.
Nonetheless, the U.S. cannot bully the Pakistani military into abandoning its militant ties. According to veteran journalist Ahmed Rashid’s new book, Descent into Chaos, Musharraf decided to retain Pakistan’s only — albeit unwieldy — form of leverage when he surmised that America was more interested in pursuing neoconservative pipedreams in Iraq than in rebuilding Afghanistan.
Rashid also writes that the Pakistani military harbors great enmity toward Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has presided over business deals with India, and who was once banished from Pakistan for his anti-Taliban stance.
The lesson is clear. Without guarantees and concessions — such as opportunities in Afghan reconstruction — the Pakistani military has no incentive to ease its obsession over Indian ambitions or to abandon its sole means of countering those ambitions: the militants and the chaos they create.
Even the military, however, ultimately bows to another master: the masses. The clamor to see Musharraf ousted, muddily refracted in the platform of the civilian politicians, forced the generals to stand aside as one of their own was removed.
America, too, must pay heed to the street if it wants to win genuine support for the war. And yet, it does little more than mouth platitudes about “the Pakistani people.” Although most Pakistanis take a dim view of the Taliban — the secularists decisively won the NWFP regional elections — their view of American policy is even dimmer.
This is not without reason. The one uniting factor among Pakistanis is religion, and America’s attitude towards Muslims has few defenders outside of those aching to strike Muslim countries. Unrelenting support for Israel’s brutality toward Palestinians is a source of enduring anger. That this support might be occasioned by the pressure of entrenched pro-Israeli lobbies, rather than some fleeting and correctable prejudice, inspires little hope for a fair American foreign policy among Muslims anywhere. The record of atrocities in Iraq and the betrayal of Americans’ own values at Guantanamo scarcely require mention.
Pakistanis also have more immediate grievances. America supported Musharraf the dictator so long as he fought “America’s war.” It poured billions of dollars into military coffers but gave almost nothing to strengthen Pakistan’s civil society or infrastructure. Hundreds of innocent Pakistanis have been illegally rounded up and disappeared by their own government because of American pressure to capture terrorists.
The oft-repeated American vow, “We will fight the terrorists abroad so that we don’t have to fight them in our own streets,” has but one meaning to most Pakistanis: the fight will take place in their streets, at the expense of their security, jeopardizing their lives. The stark slogans’ implications have already been realized for about 200,000 Pakistanis forced to flee the north, where “their” army has tried to smash flies with sledgehammers.
Predictions in the world of politics are a fool’s venture, but it is not hard to see where things are headed. Unwilling to look seriously at Pakistan’s needs, America sees only one reality: the presence of terrorists and an absence of action.
One might offer a few obligatory words about the need to build schools, hospitals, and roads in Pakistan — combating terror without inflicting more terror. But why bother? Can a government that stared blankly as one of its own cities drowned really be moved to invest in the wellbeing of a foreign people?
As my uncle would sometimes say to merchants at the bazaar, that is asking too much.
M. Junaid Levesque-Alam blogs about America and Islam at Crossing the Crescent (www.crossingthecrescent.com) and writes about American Muslim identity for WireTap magazine. Co-founder of Left Hook, a youth journal that ran from Nov. 2003 to March 2006, he works as a communications coordinator for an anti-domestic violence agency in the NYC area. He can be reached at: