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Pakistan and the US left

June 13, 2012


LAST week saw another episode in the petulant saga of sulks and ‘sorry’ that is the Pakistan-US relationship.

A drone hovering over the tribal areas shot a Hellfire missile and took out an Al Qaeda operative, the number two on the list of important targets whose collective elimination is to mean an eradication of terrorism. Yahya Al-Libi had been living in the Dattakhel area, and was identified last year by US officials as one of the five people who could have succeeded Osama bin Laden.

The names of the 10 other people who died in the attack remain unknown.

The drone attack on Pakistani territory was followed by a verbal spanking. Perched across the border, CIA chief Leon Panetta — whose agency secretly and solely handles almost all the US operations in Pakistan — chided this country for not helping enough in the project of eliminating terrorist hideouts; he announced that drone attacks would continue.

Despite the drone hits and the scolding, Pakistani and American officials continued to sit in some secret room in Islamabad and haggled over the specific words of apologies and the exact prices of tankers.

A lot happened this past week, but everything stayed the same.

In the time since the raid on the Bin Laden compound and the attack on the Salala check post last November, Pakistani officials, policymakers and diplomats have worked particularly hard to emphasise to the US the cost being extracted from Pakistanis for the ‘war on terror’.

The issue of impinged sovereignty in terms of drone attacks, the security costs of convoys of supplies meant for the military passing through towns and cities, the public health costs of spies being planted in vaccination programmes, have been enumerated as reasons that impede Pakistan’s ability to cooperate with the US or the capacity of the civilian government to maintain some bare semblance of stability within the country.

Despite all of these efforts, few in America know that 10 times more Pakistanis have died in terror attacks since 9/11 than the total number of Americans that perished in the twin towers. Fewer still know that Pakistan saw over 400 terrorist attacks just last year, and that the hundreds of thousands have been displaced owing to the ‘war on terror’, unleashing warfare all over the nation.

These facts, discussed in great detail and with great regularity in the Pakistani media as well as by current and former officials, have been summarily and completely been ignored in the US. For American government and military officials and diplomats, Pakistan is a nuisance, a sinister and wily nation whose hypocrisy justifies every intrusion.

Some of the cost for this accrues to Pakistan’s own strategic failings. It has been unable to harness the war narrative in a way that humanises the Pakistani victim before the ordinary American. One part of this failing can be pinned to Pakistani foreign-policy officials and their assumptions regarding the bearers of power and influence in the US.

Nearly all of Pakistan’s formal foreign policy resources, and some informal ones such as commentators, strategists and researchers, direct themselves towards a single class as a target: bureaucrats at the US State Department or within the Obama administration, or military personnel at the Pentagon.

If these power brokers can be influenced by alternative policy arguments, into seeing Pakistan’s good intentions or valid demands for reimbursement, it is believed, all problems can be solved: drones attacks stopped, supply routes reinstated for more money, the plight of dead soldiers and many more accidentally killed victims revealed, and Pakistan saved from being hit yet again by an endless war.

This recipe has not yielded the sympathy or reaffirmation of sovereignty it was meant to. The crucial missing meat is the inability to adequately note the historical and political make-up of anti-war movements in the US that have previously recreated the image of other nations attacked by their country.

When Pakistan seeks to attract the attention of only hawks in the American bureaucratic machinery, it ignores that the core of American anti-war efforts in Vietnam or Afghanistan were led by radicals, intellectuals and activists in the American left.

At the Nato summit held a few weeks ago in Chicago, it was a coalition of leftist groups — including the Occupy Movement, Veterans for Peace and Code Pink — that stood up against drone attacks in Pakistan, and illegal military interventions that impinge on the sovereignty of other countries.

This part of American politics that opposes war from an ideological position is largely ignored by Pakistani foreign officials and its advocates never invited to the regular round-up of talks, parties and events for selling Pakistan that occur weekly in Washington D.C.

Those ideologically most likely to see Pakistan as a suffering nation instead of a hated one, most amenable to creating the sort of people-to-people connections that end war, are summarily left out of the equation.Some of the reasons for this omission are the assumptions that operate in Pakistan itself, where bureaucrats and military officials hold not just a bit but all of the power.

Calculations learned at home, a disdain for grassroots politics, the haphazard inefficiency of protest politics, the sensational passion of acts of civil disobedience, are all generally treated with contempt in Pakistan. This suggests to Pakistanis that they must be similarly ineffective elsewhere.

Add to this a maimed Pakistani left having all but abandoned its own anti-war position and you have one right-dominated country imagining that another is also similarly constituted of only those who think war, secret and illegal.

For Pakistan, at least, the misunderstanding is an expensive one, marking a failure to create the one linkage that could recreate Pakistan in the American political discourse as more than a road for Nato supplies and render Pakistanis something more than cheap, forgettable collateral damage of remote-controlled violence.

The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law.