Should Pakistan Do More or the US Demand Less?

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By Amit Pandya – Security cooperation between the United States and Pakistan is critical to American national security goals vis a vis the terrorist threat, and to Pakistani stability. Yet the mutual mistrust between the two countries is strikingly high. Americans mistrust Pakistani intentions, resolve and will with respect to extremism, the Taliban and the war in Afghanistan. Pakistanis for their part, are unanimous in their resentment of what is perceived as incomprehension, hectoring, and worst of all pressure to adopt policies that they believe will destabilize Pakistan and increase violence. While the governments in Washington and Islamabad seek ways to deepen cooperation, this general mood of mistrust can undermine those efforts.

In mid July the Stimson Center organized a meeting with prominent Pakistanis from a wide variety of backgrounds, political affiliations and ideologies. The subject was What Do Pakistanis Want US Policymakers to Know? What was notable was the degree of anger and alienation expressed. There was an almost unanimous sense that the US, up to the most senior levels of policy-making, evinced no understanding of Pakistani conditions and limitations, and that our demand that “Pakistan must do more” is misplaced.

The people involved were not the types of people whom one expects to be anti-American. There were many retired generals, former governors and politicians, articulate in English, cosmopolitan in outlook, and tolerant and pluralistic in ideology and religion. Prominent politicians and social activists concerned with social reforms of the sort supported by the US, such as in the status and welfare of women or the reform of religious education, were also well-represented. Many of our interlocutors had collaborated with US programs of military cooperation and development aid. In short these are the people whose goodwill we lose at our peril.

A retired government official went so far as to say “If things go on as they are I will have no choice but to consider myself Taliban, and I will not be alone among Pakistanis like me.”

Many believe that the US has a simplistic and binary sense of the opposition of “terrorists” and political stability; and that this has led to adoption of policies that have exacerbated the sources of recruitment by armed insurgents.

Pakistani opinions vary about the value of negotiations with armed groups, some calling themselves Taliban and others identified by various degrees of puritan and extremist religio-political agendas, in the North West Frontier Province and in the Agencies. Some Pakistanis believe that it is futile to negotiate with any armed groups, others that a segment of insurgent groups is implacable, yet others believe that negotiations need to be a key part of a strategy of political stabilization and of the restoration of politics over military instruments of governance.

Where all these points of view concur is in the following: that the political configurations of any of the many local conflicts are complex, and include many sectarian and criminal rivalries, as well as local struggles for dominance; that there are limits to what can be accomplished by force; and that the drumbeat of US demands for more force and less negotiation can only lead to greater alienation of civilians hurt as innocent bystanders in military operations. From the Pakistani perspective, ill-conceived responses may make a bad situation worse.

Pakistanis think Washington misses or misunderstands the complex continuities of political affiliation and clan loyalty between those involved in armed activity and those involved in politics. The US obsession with defeat of armed insurgents on the frontier, in this view, is a distraction from the pressing need for political stabilization of the new government, and the need to allow that government to respond to the parlous economic situation of the country. There is also a sense that the US, over the past year of turmoil, did not support the Pakistani aspiration for an independent judiciary and the rule of law, as embodied in the widely popular “lawyers’ movement”. There is more than passing reference among Pakistanis to the fact that the armed insurgencies on the frontier also reflect a breakdown of the rule of law, and emulation by armed groups of a more widespread contempt for the rule of law observed throughout the society, particularly among the country’s rulers.

If democratic politics fails again, as it often has in Pakistan, the prospects of instability and violence will increase. There is a concern that security policy, rather than undercutting democratic governance, needs to be its handmaiden. Among the many benefits of allowing civilian politicians to pursue political solutions to what are after all civil conflicts is the establishment of the principle and process of civilians making security policy. Militarization has not worked very well in recent years.

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Amit Pandya is the Director of the Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges project at The Stimson Center.

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