American discourse on Pakistan: a double headed-monster
Perhaps the Obama administration is persisting in the tradition of a popular Bush camp negotiating tactic, and the NYT story is the “stick” that follows promises of supplemental military aid and enhanced engagement with Pakistan army.
When it comes to Pakistan, there are at least two narratives in the American media; one constructed on the basis of quasi-positive direct quotes of the administration, the other, an acrimonious narrative created by ‘unnamed’ official sources.
From stories that raised concerns on the safety of its nuclear assets to exposés that have alleged Pakistan reverse engineered legacy Harpoon missiles; from allegations that ISI engineered attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul to claims that ISI officials participated in high level Taliban meetings in Quetta; an image of a Pakistan gone wild is well established in the American imagination.
After a New York Times story last week claimed that Pakistan has become "emboldened" by the firing of Gen. McChrystal, the country has been painted in a box that can be very easily be labeled 'evil'. The New York Times story and subsequent commentary on American TV claimed that Pakistan was trying to exploit the Obama administration’s perceived vulnerability in Afghanistan to carve a larger role for itself.
Interestingly, no sources were named. As a journalist with nearly twenty years of reporting experience, I understand that one often needs to protect their source, but even after not finding WMDs in Iraq, and after recognizing how many critical mistakes were made in the past ten years, mainstream journalists continue to trust ‘whisperers’ who say one thing on the record and another behind closed doors. This duplicitous tactic puts Pakistan in a very tenuous situation.
Up until recently, American think tanks and officials complained that Kabul and Islamabad were extremely hostile to each other and that they should work together. The entire AFPAK strategy was premised on the argument that you can’t have enduring peace without participation of all local stakeholders. I remember attending an elegant reception co-hosted by Pakistani and Afghan diplomats in Washington DC where Special Representative Holbrooke was positioned as the potential grand savior of the region. This reception was touted by the American administration as a clear demonstration that both the Afghans and Pakistanis were willing to work together. It was Holbrooke’s first milestone. Americans at that time complained that Kabul and Islambad had very siloed strategies and that was counterproductive.
But, now the American media has begun complaining that General Kayani and President Karzai are keeping the Obama administration out of loop.
One wonders why this story was leaked a few days before General Kayani and Lt. General Pasha are heading back to Kabul. New York Times on June 24 reports:
“Though encouraged by Washington, the thaw heightens the risk that the United States will find itself cut out of what amounts to a separate peace between the Afghans and Pakistanis, and one that does not necessarily guarantee Washington’s prime objective in the war: denying Al Qaeda a haven.”
There is another, more ominous possibility, though. Perhaps the Obama administration is persisting in the tradition of a popular Bush camp negotiating tactic, and the NYT story is the “stick” that follows promises of supplemental military aid and enhanced engagement with the Pakistan army.
This is a high stake “tactic” that was used by the Bush administration; dates of events and the names of people and places, would continuously transform along a trajectory of a lethal narrative. Somehow, the identities of the main players manage to elude the mesmerized spectators, who watch an endless cast of characters all playing the same role of “evildoer” in "multiples theaters of wars". In an instant, a cave-dwelling religious fanatic becomes a nationalist dictator. In an instant, an ally becomes an enemy.
Citing unnamed sources, the New York Times writes:
“Despite General McChrystal’s 11 visits to General Kayani in Islamabad in the past year, the Pakistanis have not been altogether forthcoming on details of the conversations in the last two months, making the Pakistani moves even more worrisome for the United States.”
This should be "worrisome" for Pakistan as well. Is the Obama administration preparing to put the blame of possible failure in Afghanistan squarely on Islamabad? Or is it possible that Pakistani generals are misreading an American exit strategy as retreat and demanding a bigger role for Pakistan through extremist proxies?
Both scenarios are lethal for Pakistan.
If the United States faults Pakistan for failure in Afghanistan there is a possibility of direct retaliation against Pakistani assets that will not bode well for the region. And, if the Pakistan army is really pushing the Haqqani network and GHQ still views extremists as ‘strategic assets’, the country has no hope of progress.