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Partners in denial

August 03, 2011

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THE US, Pakistan and Afghanistan are facing serious national challenges. They are trying to solve them together but instead of looking at the broader strategic picture and developing a sound common strategy they are giving primacy to their own national interests that has led to poor policy responses with horrendous consequences for all.

As for the US, there is impatience and a quickness to resort to force of arms. There is also a belief, rooted in military superiority and a sacrosanct self-image of an indispensable, exceptional and saviour nation that is doing so much public good through a morally superior foreign policy, that its interests, worldview, and strategies are beyond challenge. Coupled with it is a feeling stemming from the capitalist mindset that with money you can fix anything and buy anything including friendships.

But the world has changed. It contests America’s self-image and is no more amenable to American will as it used to be except in troubled countries like Pakistan. In fact, even in Pakistan the US is having trouble. Gone are the days when Washington could treat these countries as clients and work through pliant regimes presiding over compliant populations. The populations are now becoming increasingly politically aware and assertive and the social order as well as its foreign policy underpinnings are under challenge.

The US does not understand this nor the fact that its militaristic and unilateral response to this changed world, which admittedly has come to pose some serious threats to its security such as from terrorism, has created more problems than it has solved. The war in Afghanistan has virtually been lost but Washington denies it. Not only did the military campaign in Afghanistan lack a political strategy but also, in the rush to war, there was little effort to comprehend the nature of the threat or the enemy. The enemy was Al Qaeda. It could and should have been defeated directly. But the route adopted to defeat Al Qaeda (through defeating the Taliban) was not a wise course of action. It betrayed little understanding of the conflicted, violent and broken Afghanistan left behind by the US when the Soviets withdrew.

Nor did America show any understanding of a sanctioned, aggrieved, isolated Pakistan unbound by America and left to its own devices. Colossal damage came to be done to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the decade following the Soviet withdrawal. The damage was caused by themselves and Washington’s neglect and poor policies. And the militarised response to 9/11 has made things worse. Pakistan is now involved in multiple wars.

But Pakistanis too are in denial. On one side we have the discredited ruling elite still banking on Washington to solve all of Pakistan’s problems, and on the other we have a large chunk of the population caught up in the frenzy of anti-Americanism.

Both are wrong. The Americans may have left a ‘mess’ behind after the Afghan war in the 1980s but it was gladly taken over by the Pakistan Army and improvised on to nourish its own strategic ambitions in the region, widely radiating radical thoughts.

Now thanks to Washington’s ill-conceived response to 9/11, the ownership of this mess, that variously trades as anti-Americanism, ultra-nationalism and extremism, has become public property over which no one has any control.

Pakistanis have to understand that they cannot defeat terrorism without defeating extremism. For that they have to acknowledge the existence among themselves of religiosity, the laws, social norms and the national security concepts however legitimate that give rise to extremism. As a consequence, Pakistanis see an enemy in a friend and a friend in an enemy. They hate terrorism but live with extremism. No wonder civil society is confused. The divide is no longer between the secular and the religious, the conservative and the liberal, the moderate and the extremist. All these tendencies have come to live within the same soul.

Pakistanis have to do some serious soul-searching. Among other things they must understand that Pakistan’s external ambitions have come to be in a zero-sum relationship with its internal order, and what looks like democracy does not work as such. The media’s exuberance and judicial activism are meaningless if they do not improve the quality of democracy and governance, and act only as a mood enhancer.

As for the Afghans they too have to realise that they cannot blame all their misfortunes on Pakistan. Afghanistan has had serious fault lines — ethnic, linguistic, sectarian and tribal not to mention a competitive and conflict-prone geopolitical environment. Many must wish they had accepted the Durand Line and not played up the Pakhtunistan issue historically. The chickens are coming home to roost. The fact is Afghanistan’s problems go beyond the Taliban issue. Even if there were no Taliban, Afghanistan would have had problems.

Now all three are asking each other to follow policies to make up for the failure of their own failed policies. This will not work.

Afghanistan has to get its act together. As for Pakistan, neither America nor anti-Americanism will help. Pakistan does need America but on the basis of a normal relationship. That will not happen until Pakistan itself makes a strategic choice to become a normal country and the US too makes necessary adjustments to its foreign policy and makes it one that is not militarised or imperial in nature. Both countries are facing challenges that neither can solve alone.

The writer, a former ambassador, is Senior Visiting Pakistan Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University.