Obama or Romney, Pakistan must make its own decisions!

Despite his harsh condemnations of the Obama administration, Imran Khan has been the darling of the American press.

Daniel A Medina November 06, 2012
Pakistan has always kept a special place in my heart. It is a place that I’ve studied intently throughout my studies, both at the university and post-graduate level here in the United States, and even more so as a journalist.

But, my real education on the country has not come in the classroom under the tutelage of proclaimed experts but, rather, it has come from Pakistanis themselves.

Over the course of more than five years of study, I have spoken with countless Pakistani students, journalists and academics, all either Pakistani-Americans or Pakistani nationals, and what I have learned as an outside observer has been fundamental to my understanding of the country and how I view its politics and civil society.

Today, I will vote for the next president of the United States and each candidate’s views on foreign policy, specifically on Pakistan, are hard to differentiate and that I find to be troublesome for the future relations of the two countries.

Both President Obama and Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, often cite Pakistan as a central focus of American foreign policy in South Asia. They say if America is to ultimately triumph in its now over-a-decade long ‘war on terror’, it is Pakistan that must be the willing ally to help the nation achieve its aims. But, few in Washington seem to understand the social and political complexities of Pakistani society and even fewer acknowledge, at least publicly, that the United States has been a destabilising force in the country for decades.

It began with President Kennedy’s armament of India, after its 1962 border war with China to the CIA-led funding, arming and enlisting of mujahideen forces to resist Soviet advancement in Afghanistan. Essentially, the security conundrum facing Pakistan has its roots in the policy decisions made by virtually every American president in the last half century.

Today, American foreign policy elites and the Obama administration officials, off the record, wilfully acknowledge Pakistan to be a failed state run by an incompetent Zardari administration that is largely powerless and hostage to an increasingly hawkish ISI. To protect American interests in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani Northern highlands, the CIA has fought a covert drone war for years that has, rightly so, enraged the Pakistani public and fuelled anti-American sentiments at a time when relations between the two nations are fraught with distrust.

Opposition leader, Imran Khan, has campaigned against such drone strikes saying they would cease under a Khan administration and he has outwardly criticised the Zardari government for what he views as placating to American demands in dictating policy towards the Pakistani Taliban. Despite his harsh condemnations of the Obama administration, Khan, whose celebrity as the nation’s finest ever cricket star is unmatched, has been the darling of the American press.

Profiled in both the New York Times and The New Yorker magazine this past summer, Khan has said all the right things and his lively campaign rallies held in the oft-neglected Pakistani tribal areas where he holds his base have been compared to Obama rallies in Iowa in 2007 that catapulted the senator to global stardom. If Obama was a hope to a weary nation battered by a financial crisis, supporters view Khan as the best chance in a generation to break the political status quo in a country where nearly a quarter of the population still lives in extreme poverty.

His critics say he, like Obama in 2008, has been more style than substance and there may be validity in their claims. The Malala Yousufzai case, which has finally united the nation against rising extremism, was a disastrous episode for Khan.  He refused to publicly name the Taliban as culprits in the attack, even though they assumed responsibility publicly, and his comments outside the hospital in Peshawar, where Malala was being treated, that the Afghan Taliban’s ‘holy war’ was justified under Islamic law brought widespread criticism from all sides, even Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The crisis brought questions of Khan’s credibility to take on the immense challenges facing the country. His campaign’s chief electoral strategy of gaining the support of Islamabad’s chief foes, including some of the country’s radical Islamists, appears to have backfired. He has recently changed course but it may be too late for his party’s chances at winning in next year’s highly anticipated elections.

A rising star come and gone, it is the Pakistani tragedy that has transpired in nearly every time period since the nation’s founding. It is a tragedy that will never resolve itself until Washington and Islamabad work as true allies, where it is not the White House who dictates the future of the country but where a Pakistani leadership finally tackles the deeply entrenched social, economic and political problems that have plagued the state for generations.

Follow Daniel on Twitter @dmedin11
Daniel A Medina A freelance multimedia journalist and graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, where he serves as Lead Editor of The Journal of International Affairs. He tweets @dmedin11
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