The recent selection of Sherry Rehman as the new Pakistani ambassador to the United States has created a surprising rift in Pakistan’s elite liberal circles. Liberal commentators were overwhelmingly supportive of Ms Rehman’s predecessor, Mr Husain Haqqani, for his commitment to a democratic Pakistan. Most of these commentators had been incensed by how Tehreek-e-Insaf leader, Imran Khan had singled out Mr Haqqani for scornful censure during his public rally and these most recent accusations added insult to injury. Indeed, the infamous memo which led to his resignation was for many a vindication of their views regarding the villainy of the military.
The announcement of Sherry Rehman as the ambassador-designate less than 24 hours after the resignation took many by surprise. For socially progressive liberals, Sherry Rehman’s impeccable credentials of courage in advocating women’s and minority rights had to be acknowledged in this selection. Yet, there were others who could not concede being mistaken in their predictions and immediately began to suggest that the new ambassador-designate is somehow also hand-picked by the military. Particularly strident in this line of thinking have been Canadian-Pakistani activist and talk-show host Tarek Fatah and Norwegian-Pakistani academic Farhat Taj. The main anchor for their critique is a report on Afghanistan-Pakistan that was published by the Jinnah Institute, a think tank that Sherry Rehman led until her appointment.
The report in question is titled Pakistan, the United States and the End Game in Afghanistan: Perceptions of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Elite. But for those who suggest that the report was somehow surreptitiously supported by the military, please note that the co-sponsor of the report is the United States Institute of Peace, a Congressionally-mandated independent organisation. The report is meant to be an observational document synthesising perspectives rather than an empirical study. Thus to critique it on academic grounds is inappropriate and the findings are fairly self-evident in terms of how the public views American involvement in the region. Why should the findings of this report be somehow indicative of Ms Rehman being in cahoots with the military? What is troubling is that even leading reporting outlets such as The New York Times, in their news story reporting Ms Rehman’s appointment, hinted at this connection.
Independent American think tanks such as the New America Foundation have done studies of views regarding issues such as drone strikes in Fata and the findings indicate overwhelming opposition to such interventions. Surely, the New America Foundation is not under the influence of the Pakistani military! Furthermore, even if Ms Rehman’s views at times may come across as ‘pro-military’, why must that be suggestive of some anti-democratic trajectory for her selection and her forthcoming leadership? It is high time that liberal analysts not use their disagreements with particular views as a means of conspiratorial thinking — for which they often accuse their conservative counterparts.
The demonisation of the military is not likely to serve the cause of democracy. No doubt the military has played a disproportionately powerful role in Pakistan’s history and has often been errant in their interventions. But, as with other countries living in stressed security locales, this is not unusual and there are paths to democracy by more cautious conciliatory approaches with military ranks. Note that countries such as Brazil, South Korea or Turkey followed a similar path for many years with strong military governments, but transitioned to democracy after a friendly alliance was formed between civilian and security forces.
Ways by which pluralistic nations negotiate matters with multiple constituencies should not be dismissed with cynicism but rather allowed to proceed as a means of democratisation. That is the path which Sherry Rehman will likely follow and for which she deserves our support in improving ties between Pakistan and the United States.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 28th, 2011.