Congressmen’s fury

Updated 15 Jul 2016

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LIKE most legislatures in the democratic world, committee hearings are mostly turgid, wonkish affairs that attract virtually no public interest.

But when known Pakistan-bashers gathered in the US Congress for a joint subcommittee hearing provocatively titled ‘Pakistan: Friend or Foe in the Fight against Terrorism?’ there was certainly going to be a spectacle.

Yet, what transpired during the hour-long hearing was extraordinary even by the already low standards that could be expected from a cast of characters that usually chides, berates and threatens Pakistan.

Not only were there epithets casually uttered and incendiary allegations tossed around like irrefutable fact, the range of punitive measures discussed bordered on the pathological.

One of the so-called expert witnesses called to testify on Pakistan suggested a travel ban to the US for Pakistani citizens, including students.

Earlier in the session, a congressman made a number of wild accusations about militancy in Sindh. By the time a notorious Pakistan-bashing congressman spewed hate about Balochistan and the Pakistani state, the reasonable observer could have been forgiven for wondering if a collective madness had overcome the room.

To be sure, there are continuing and important questions to be asked of the Pakistani state’s anti-militancy policy.

The army leadership has in the last week explicitly indicated that it will act against those using Pakistani soil for attacks inside Afghanistan, but that extraordinary commitment remains to be tested.

Yet, no sober, realistic or honest appraisal of what has transpired in Afghanistan over the past decade and a half can possibly lay the bulk of the blame for that country’s continuing instability and insecurity at Pakistan’s doorstep.

Indeed, when asked about his and the US government’s support for Hamid Karzai as the post-Taliban leader of Afghanistan, former ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad offered a weak defence, citing the need for a Pakhtun leader in Afghanistan.

But few American officials would deny that the Karzai era proved to be hugely damaging for Afghanistan itself — the opportunity to build institutions and a somewhat viable state was lost to the preferences and choices of Mr Karzai who put self-interest first.

Moreover, no rational outside observer would suggest that the US has ever had a viable or realistic strategy in Afghanistan. No one should forget Gen Stanley McChrystal’s infamous “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in” boast.

The arguments over Afghanistan, what went wrong and who is to blame can be endless because they are mostly rooted in political and strategic preferences of those arguing.

What is undeniable, however, is that wild and vicious comments from the US Congress have the potential to stoke anti-Americanism here in Pakistan and make it significantly more difficult for reasonable voices on both sides to engage in healthy debate.

Democratic norms prevent calling for a ban on political speech, but perhaps sensible voices in the US can speak out with clarity on Pakistan right now.

Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2016