You’ve recently returned from a trip to India and Pakistan. How have perceptions of the United States settled since US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited?
The United States is badly losing the war of perceptions in Pakistan. By all accounts today more than 85 percent of Pakistanis are anti-Taliban and anti-America. Anti-Americanism is not new though. Pakistan has had a high, albeit tolerable, level of anti-Americanism for decades. But what makes this current streak more dangerous is that perceptions are now deterring action. American aid workers and their partners in the Pakistani government–guilty by association–are unable to execute development projects. This also multiplies mistrust between the two countries.
Washington and Islamabad are equally at fault. For the last eight years, Washington believed cloaking assistance would increase local government’s legitimacy and secure American diplomats and aid workers. Today, Islamabad is politically weak and Americans are more–not less–insecure. Instead of relying excessively on Islamabad, Washington must realize that the drivers of success or failure of its mission are the Pakistani people. The United States must partner with Pakistan to make its military support and development dollars reasonably transparent and comprehensible to ordinary Pakistanis–citizen recipients.
India is watching with measured optimism. It’s hoping that Pakistani military and intelligence will eventually go after transnational groups like the Lashar-e-Taiba, which was allegedly responsible for the Mumbai attacks last year. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Washington gave the Indians what they wanted: renewed US-India economic and energy cooperation, a steady flow of American nuclear technology and American commitment to stay out of the Kashmir, an area historically contested between India and Pakistan. On that account, the perception of the US in India is much better than in Pakistan.
You’ve written recently about how the US needs to market itself in Pakistan. In a nutshell, what does it need to be doing differently?
Washington and Islamabad need to work on an aggressive public diplomacy campaign that genuinely explains the partnership using all available mediums (TV, radio, internet and cell phones) and through high impact visible socio-economic projects. One way would be to create a website linked to a cell phone network that allows Pakistanis to track US assistance in real time–there are 90 million cell phone users and 18 million internet users in Pakistan. And I’ve actually done a pilot project tied to this (www.usaidforme.com). The goal should be to answer three basic questions in plain language that I believe most Pakistanis want answered: Why and how are we helping the United States against al-Qaeda and the Taliban? And what happens if we don’t?
Clinton was critical of Pakistan’s failure to capture top al-Qaeda leaders. Broadly speaking, how do you rate Pakistan’s counter-insurgency efforts?
I’m cautiously optimistic. Pakistan’s counterinsurgency strategy and capabilities have produced results that are both laudable and helpful to the American mission to defeat al-Qaeda. Nine months ago Pakistani Taliban-the protectors of al-Qaeda–controlled 60 percent of the nuclear-armed country’s north. Today, they’re largely squeezed into parts of the tribal areas. The Pakistani people and their political and religious leaders, and military, intelligence and police personnel are paying a high price for cooperating with the United States: almost 1000 security personnel and 2200 innocent civilians have been killed by terrorism in 2009 alone. They know the gravity of the situation and are willing to change course and threat perception accordingly.
On the al-Qaeda side, most of the top 20 killed by American drone attacks are a direct result of Pakistani human intelligence; without renewed and diversified CIA-ISI cooperation this would’ve been impossible.
But there are major caveats. Successful counterinsurgency in Pakistan needs US equipment and trainers, development dollars and a steady flow of popular support. Without a transparent US-Pakistan partnership the last, and most important, requirement will remain unattainable. Second, the Pakistani military now needs help in developing its provincial and district reconstruction teams so that they can effectively stabilize the areas they’ve recently cleared. On the domestic side, Islamabad has to step up its political reconciliation program to draw the people in by matching more development projects with civil liberties.
The most perplexing–and arguably the most important–problem is that of providing the Pakistanis a credible alternative to their current hedging policy in Afghanistan against Indian influence in Kabul that they perceive as hostile to Pakistan’s national security. American military and development aid can only go so far; Washington, London, Riyadh and Beijing must collectively promote an influence-sharing formula between the Afghans, Indians and Pakistanis.
How effective has the Pakistani leadership been in rallying public support for its counter-insurgency efforts?
Through vicious nationwide terrorist attacks the Pakistani Taliban have practically done the job for the Pakistani government. This year, they’ve executed one attack after another irrespective of place, ethnicity, religion, sect or status, fueling anti-Taliban sentiment. For example, they beheaded four Pakistani Special Forces soldiers in downtown Swat valley, killed 500 shoppers in Peshawar, and hundreds of police and mosque-goers in Rawalpindi and Lahore and counting–the list goes on. The images of victims are beaming nonstop to millions of homes through more than 120 24/7 news channels.
The problem, however, is not that most Pakistanis now disapprove of the Pakistani Taliban’s means and targets, but that they’re still perplexed by the force behind such terrorism. Conspiracy theories are rampant about Indian, Israeli and American support to the Pakistani Taliban creating a dangerous paradox–most Pakistanis are equally anti-Taliban and anti-American. This must be changed.
Looking across the border at Afghanistan, what do you make of the recent US announcement to send 30,000 more troops. Was President Barack Obama right to set out a timeline for withdrawal?
I believe the timeline is flexible and I hope Obama’s limited strategy to disrupt and dismantle al-Qaeda will be augmented in the next three to five years to achieve its end goal–defeating al-Qaeda will require high doses of armed-nation building. The 30,000 troops will suppress Taliban activity in the south of the country, but such gains will only be sustainable through robust Pakistani cooperation. At present the two militaries–Pakistani and ISAF–are on opposite lanes of a highway communicating but not integrating efforts sufficiently. The Pakistani military is pushing the Pakistani Taliban across the border into Afghanistan’s Nuristan, Kunar, Paktia and Nangarhar provinces and ISAF will push the Afghan Taliban into Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Instead of building upon Pakistan’s momentum against the Taliban, ISAF may unintentionally do what the insurgents want: open multiple fronts, stretch troops thin and lose popular support.
Are you optimistic about the prospects for long-term stability in Afghanistan?
I’m optimistic because I believe given the right regional circumstances Afghans will step up as they always have: through complex organic political pacts between tribes. Over time these pacts will begin to resemble a modern day federation free of terrorists and at peace with its neighbors.
That said, Washington will have to realize that deterring another 9/11 doesn’t depend solely on destroying terrorist sanctuary and networks but eradicating the socio-economic, cultural, political and geopolitical conditions that harnesses terrorism. The cost benefit analysis hinges on the question: does America want to stop al-Qaeda-types for the next 5 or 50 years? If the latter, then a credible long-term commitment–balanced with American domestic needs–is required toward Afghanistan and similarly vulnerable states.