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What keeps Obama awake?

June 23, 2013

THE actor George Clooney was quoted by the January 2012 issue of Esquire magazine as having asked President Obama: what single issue keeps him awake at night? The president’s answer: Pakistan.

Clooney said “I get that” and the “question of whether Zardari’s government is actually in control or whether the military is. And how close the Taliban, or Al Qaeda, or whoever else, is to having their hands on real weapons of mass destruction. It’s the closest government there is to allowing those weapons to either be used or sold…”

Clooney, of course, does not really ‘get it’. He was regurgitating the myths propagated against Pakistan. Hopefully, an intelligent and rational leader like Obama does ‘get it’. Such dire conclusions, portraying Pakistan as the “nexus of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction”, have been concocted from fact and fiction, old and new, by Pakistan’s enemies for reasons that are not secret.

It is at best hypocritical for America to carp about the Pakistan military’s role after depending on it for so long to do its bidding. The anti-military complaints commenced when it resisted compliance with US wishes.

No doubt, over the last three decades, Pakistan has seen a dramatic rise of Islamic extremism. The US, which masterminded the injection of 40,000 Islamic fighters into Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet war, surely shares a considerable part of the blame.

Most Pakistanis are “moderate” Muslims. Over 90pc voted for the mainstream, non-religious parties in the recent elections.

During the 1990s, Pakistan did extend support to the militant struggle in Kashmir, as a reaction to India’s military suppression of the Kashmiris. This was halted under US pressure.

When the US used the Tajik-led Northern Alliance to oust the largely Pakhtun Taliban regime, the support of Pakistan’s more numerous Pakhtuns for their Afghan kin was entirely predictable. And, Al Qaeda’s leadership, after it was allowed by US forces to escape from Tora Bora, survived in the porous border regions and filtered into Pakistan’s cities.

The anti-Pakistan propaganda does not mention that Pakistan’s agencies have been responsible for killing or capturing most of the Al Qaeda members. They did not need indiscriminate drones to do so. In response to US desires, Pakistan also deployed over 150,000 troops on its western border to prevent “cross-border” attacks on US-Nato forces in Afghanistan. Then, responding to US priorities, Islamabad made the mistake of sending its military against the Mehsuds in South Waziristan, leading to their alliance with Al Qaeda and the subsequent formation of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), whose agenda is to attack Pakistan rather than the US.

Pakistan has paid a heavy price for its cooperation with the US “war on terror”: over 50,000 civilian and military casualties and enormous damage to its economy and growth. Yet, the US wanted Pakistan to “do more”, especially to intervene militarily in North Waziristan against the Haqqani group (which was not involved in the anti-Pakistan attacks). It was Pakistan’s resistance to this demand which elevated the “blame game” against Pakistan from a secondary to the principal US instrument to secure Pakistan’s compliance with US demands.

Moving from cooperation to rivalry, the US sent in hundreds of its “agents” into Pakistan. The drone strikes multiplied. Then followed, in quick succession, the Davis affair, the secret operation to kill Osama bin Laden and finally the Salala air attack.

Meanwhile, the A.Q. Khan episode was utilised to escalate the pressure against Pakistan and restrain its strategic defence programme. The canard was diligently propounded that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons may be taken over by militants or the Pakistan Army come under the control of extremists.

Pakistan-US relations have been brought back from the brink of the Salala aftermath. A modicum of civility has been restored. This may be due to the US need for Pakistan’s cooperation to ensure an orderly withdrawal of most of its military forces from Afghanistan and to help negotiate a cessation of hostilities there.

But putting Pakistan on the defensive on terrorism and nuclear proliferation has made it possible to sideline several of its legitimate concerns: drone strikes; the TTP’s “safe havens” in Afghanistan; the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) insurgency allegedly operating from there; India’s growing military role in Afghanistan; and the nuclear and strategic discrimination against Pakistan.

This is the time for Pakistan to press Washington to respond to its concerns. Reportedly, Pakistan has played a crucial role in securing the Afghan Taliban’s readiness to distance themselves from Al Qaeda and enabling the forthcoming launch of the US-Taliban talks in Doha.

Pakistan has also reportedly facilitated a dialogue between the Taliban and Northern Alliance. Now that the US will be talking with Mullah Omar and the Haqqanis, and working for the cessation of violence, it cannot justify its drone strikes.

Pakistan’s current leverage can also generate a genuine American endeavour to end support to the BLA and TTP in Afghan territory. Karzai will need to be brought to heel.

Pakistan’s mediatory role will not please India which can try to trip up the talks. If this happens, it will be up to the US to reverse its promotion of India’s military presence and political influence in Afghanistan.

Clearly, if Pakistan-US relations are to be normalised, the myth of Pakistan as the “most dangerous place in the world” needs to be disavowed by the US.

The forthcoming visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry to Pakistan offers an opportunity to put an end to the US demonisation of Pakistan. Kerry is perhaps the sole senior member of the Obama administration with some empathy for Pakistan. Yet Islamabad cannot be too optimistic. There are already murmurs about the Islamist sympathies of this government.

After the 1998 India-Pakistan nuclear tests, when I drew the attention of a Chinese colleague to America’s discriminatory treatment of Pakistan, he observed: “Pakistan is two things: one, it is an Islamic state; two, it is a nuclear-weapon state. The combination is not acceptable to the US.”

Hopefully, this conclusion will soon be outdated and insomnia no longer trouble the US president.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.