Pakistan and America: What kind of relationship?
I try to express what I’m about as a writer by saying that I don’t do policy recommendations. What I mean is that I’m much more interested in people, and how they make do and get by and (try to) get along with each other, despite misunderstandings and sometimes genuine deep differences, than I am in states and statecraft.
I’m only too well aware that this is a contrarian way to write about Pakistan because, to most Americans, Pakistan amounts to little more than a problem to be solved. As it happens, this Saturday I’ll be taking part in a panel discussion in the US city of Indianapolis, hosted by the hardworking Pakistan American Friendship Association. The event’s title is “Pakistan Problem Paradigm,” and I’m being asked to address the question: “Is Pakistan a problem that needs to be solved?” The answer is that it depends on what you mean by Pakistan. American habits of mind, reflected in the culture of US publishing, are exemplified by the New York literary agent who, when I told him I had published a book on Pakistan, asked me: “What’s your argument?”
Is it necessary to have an argument? Bruce O. Riedel certainly has one. Riedel is a former CIA officer, advisor to President Obama, and fellow at the influential Brookings Institution in Washington who published a blunt op-ed article last Saturday in the New York Times. Just how blunt is clear by the headline: “A New Pakistan Policy: Containment.”
Riedel’s argument about the duplicity of the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment is all too sound. For example, he writes that Pakistan’s generals “have sidelined and intimidated civilian leaders elected in 2008. They seem to think Pakistan is invulnerable, because they control Nato’s supply line from Karachi to Kabul and have nuclear weapons.”
And that’s part of the problem. There’s that word again; but the problem is not Pakistan itself, but rather bad faith on all sides: two national establishments in the habit of using and talking past each other and, beyond that, two societies that have both been deeply indoctrinated in nationalist habits of mind. I say nationalist, not patriotic; for the distinction, see George Orwell’s classic essay “Notes on Nationalism.” Unfortunately, both Pakistanis and Americans have been brainwashed into conflating patriotism with nationalism, thus into making excuses for state-driven priorities that should be inexcusable.
Riedel’s blunt argument is hard to refute, but it’s maddening to read because of its unspoken assumptions. He says “drones should be used judiciously, for very important targets,” which sounds well and good in the abstract. Ditto his recommendation that the US “should encourage India to be more conciliatory on Kashmir, by easing border controls and releasing prisoners.” If you’re convinced, as I am, of the patent unfairness of the world’s blind spot on Kashmir and the free pass that India enjoys for its appalling culpability there, this sort of thing is hard to stomach.
Then there’s this: “America and Pakistan have had a tempestuous relationship for decades. For far too long we have banked on the Pakistani Army to protect our interests.” The problem with this sort of policy-driven writing is that it assumes that the state to which it’s recommending policy is the one that holds the moral high ground. Pakistanis could very credibly reply that for far too long they have banked on the US to protect their interests. What about, to cite only the most blatant and damaging example, the US abandonment of Pakistan, just as the monster the two states had jointly created to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan was morphing into the Taliban?
But there’s one point of Riedel’s that self-respecting Pakistanis should welcome. “Offering Pakistan more trade while reducing aid makes sense,” he writes. “When we extend traditional aid, media outlets with ties to the ISI cite the aid to weave conspiracy theories that alienate Pakistanis from us. Mr. Obama should instead announce that he is cutting tariffs on Pakistani textiles to or below the level that India and China enjoy; that would strengthen entrepreneurs and women, two groups who are outside the army’s control and who are interested in peace.”
Any truly healthy relationship is based on mutual respect as well as self-respect on each side. A relationship of dependency, expectations, and quid pro quos is inherently corrupting. US aid to the Pakistani military reinforces the two states’ codependency and embitters and humiliates everyone.
Haiti’s situation is of course very different in important ways from Pakistan’s, but a Haitian friend’s words are apt: “It’s like we’re spoiled children. … We as a people, we need to get organised. We need to determine what we really want and really need for the country. And we need to prepare our own development. We need to take action ourselves, to ensure that we are autonomous, [that] we are able to fend for ourselves.”
My own policy recommendation is that we try – difficult though it might be – to ignore and/or work around the policies that are recommended, decided, or implemented in both Washington and Islamabad. Society – as distinct from the state – has a lot of freedom of action in both Pakistan and America, if only we would exercise it. And, as Orwell wrote (his emphasis): “Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. … The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”
The starting point for both societies is to embrace patriotism and reject nationalism. I know that’s easier said than done, but it needs to be done.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this writing are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of League of India, its Editorial Board or the business and socio-political interests that they might represent.
This article was first published on Pakistan's Dawn website here