June 29, 2007

Problem child Pakistan

This article originally appeared in The Indian Express on June 29, 2007.

Washingtonians like to deny it, but glamour and celebrity have an inordinate sway over policies and perceptions in the United States. Pakistan’s stock has been declining for many months now in the US capital, but two recent events involving celebrities have done far more damage to Pakistan’s public image than any Congressional motion or presidential speech could have.

Firstly, Angelina Jolie has thrown her star power behind A Mighty Heart, the film adaptation of a book by Daniel Pearl’s widow, recounting the Wall Street Journal reporter’s 2002 kidnapping and execution in Karachi. Jolie’s turn as Mariane Pearl has single-handedly boosted the profile of a film that would otherwise have languished on the periphery of popular consciousness, if not in abject obscurity. The movie, released last Friday, has not fared particularly well in the box office. However, Jolie and the film have received positive reviews and generous media coverage.

The movie’s release has roughly coincided with the fervent reaction by the government and people of Pakistan to Salman Rushdie’s knighthood. The latest episode of the Rushdie saga has gained substantial coverage and sympathetic responses from a small but influential stratum of American observers. Among others, the columnist Christopher Hitchens penned a scathing critique of the resulting street protests, portraying them as emblematic of the mindless Islamic fundamentalism holding the rest of the world hostage. Thus Pakistan, which had been downgraded from an ally in the war on terror to (rather oxymoronically) both a solution and a problem, is now finally only a problem.

While popular perceptions of Pakistan grow more sceptical and the American media continue to call for a change in the government’s Pakistan policies, the Bush administration has chosen to respond with unabashed inaction. In policy circles outside government, however, opinion is starkly divided about how to progress.

Some, such as Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek, have argued that the US has no choice but to continue its dealings with the Pakistan army. The military will continue to call the shots even if there is a perceived return to democracy, as during the Benazir Bhutto-Nawaz Sharif years. This is a view favoured by many longtime Pakistan analysts. The possibility of further chaos and instability, coupled with Pakistan’s exaggerated importance in the war on terror, substantiates the pursuance of such a policy.

On the other hand, others see the Bush administration’s continued tacit support of Musharraf as an acknowledgment that it has given up its active promotion of democracy. The print media, in particular, has questioned the wisdom of maintaining the tenuous American link with Musharraf and the army. To make matters worse for Musharraf, The New York Times recently cast serious doubts on his support within the army, boldly suggesting the president may meet a similar fate as General Zia, complete with airplane and mangoes.

Another consideration is the nuclear angle. American non-proliferation experts have repeatedly stated that Pakistan and Russia remain the two major proliferation concerns among nuclear weapons states, although for completely different reasons. The Pakistani refusal to discuss, or even sometimes acknowledge, the haunting spectre of A.Q. Khan does them more harm than good. The entire array of problems means that Pakistan is seen as a powder keg of Islamic fundamentalism, tribal independence, military authoritarianism and nuclear recklessness.

The chief contender for the 2008 presidential elections, meanwhile, appears completely insulated from these trends. As late as this month’s televised Democratic debate, Senator Hillary Clinton proclaimed with dangerous certainty what most policymakers had dismissed as an invalidated platitude: that Musharraf remains the only bulwark against rampant Islamic theocracy in Pakistan.

Her chief Democratic rival, Barack Obama, gingerly avoided talk of Musharraf, both during the debate and in an article outlining his foreign policy agenda in Foreign Affairs, although he made sure to sound off on Pakistan’s ineffectiveness in the war on terror.

“I will join with our allies in insisting — not simply requesting — that Pakistan crack down on the Taliban, pursue Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants, and end its relationship with all terrorist groups,” he wrote.

But Obama also put the onus on India to solve the region’s problems. “At the same time, I will encourage dialogue between Pakistan and India to work toward resolving their dispute over Kashmir and between Afghanistan and Pakistan to resolve their historic differences and develop the Pashtun border region,” he added. “If Pakistan can look toward the east with greater confidence, it will be less likely to believe that its interests are best advanced through cooperation with the Taliban.”

Republican Mitt Romney — the other presidential candidate to detail his foreign policy in the journal — failed altogether to mention either India or Pakistan.

What no US president, present or future, has acknowledged is that the current US policy toward Pakistan is woefully inadequate. Arguably, either a stable Musharraf regime or a popularly elected leader, however impotent, may be of greater benefit than the unpredictable anarchy plaguing large swathes of Pakistan today. Until now, American leaders have failed to articulate a viable alternative strategy. They are probably hoping they will not have to.