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When a critical assessment of the Bush-era “War on Terror” is undertaken, a vital chapter will focus on U.S. relations with Pakistan. President Bush labeled the nation “a major non-NATO ally” in order to qualify it for military programs. He then lavished Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorship with billions in aid designed to beef up its ability to engage the Taliban and Al Qaeda, only to see most of this money diverted into secret military programs designed to address Pakistani security qualms about India. Future historians may well conclude that the Bush team were played for patsies by Pakistan’s military, with Interservice Intelligence (ISI) in the lead. There is increasingly solid evidence that the ISI consciously thwarted the United States–facilitating the escape of key Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership figures from Afghanistan and sheltering them in Pakistan’s rugged Northwest Frontier Province. In their place, Pakistani authorities streamed hundreds of perfectly innocent people into American hands, filling the special detention center that Bush built at Guantánamo with chaff rather than the leadership figures the Americans were seeking.
Hillary Clinton is now on a visit to Pakistan. Her comments there reflect a new U.S. relationship with Islamabad, built on a far more serious understanding of Pakistan’s internal problems and a more aggressive view about dealing with them. But they also reflect a fundamentally different take on civilian-military relations in this nuclear power of 181 million. Reuters reports:
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wound up a bridge-building visit to Pakistan on Friday leaving a pointed question ringing in her hosts’ ears: Where are the al Qaeda leaders operating in your country? While no Pakistani officials were immediately prepared to answer, ordinary citizens told Washington’s top diplomat the country was living on a daily basis with the consequences of the September 11, 2001 attacks engineered by the militant Islamist group…
On Thursday Clinton expressed disbelief no-one in authority knew where al Qaeda leaders were hiding out — a remark that may fuel much reaction once she leaves the country. “I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to,” she told a group of newspaper editors during a meeting in Lahore.
While these remarks were portrayed by the clueless U.S. media as a gaffe, in fact they provide a deep glimpse into the Obama Administration’s agenda for Pakistan. To start with, they’re remarkably mild. She’s presenting as a question something that U.S. intelligence knows for a fact: the ISI has been coddling Taliban leaders and their Al Qaeda allies, just as the ISI has systematically enabled the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. While American commentators view this as something shocking or potentially offensive to an ally, in fact it regularly figures in Pakistan’s domestic political discourse, in which the mainstream political parties view the Pakistani military’s support for militant Islam as a threat. Thus, Secretary Clinton is speaking an obvious truth, and at the same time ratcheting up pressure on the Pakistani military to change its erring ways and fully embrace the crackdown.
But there’s a second major item to the secretary’s agenda that has escaped most commentators—that’s the effort to restart the Pakistani-Indian dialogue. Meaningful victory over Pakistan’s inner demons can only occur against the backdrop of reduced tensions with India—which in turn would permit a reallocation of military resources to deal with Islamic militants. This is why those very militants and their sponsors in the Pakistani military sought to heat up antagonisms with India—the factor likely driving the attack on Mumbai.
India’s decision to reopen its peace initiative towards Pakistan during Clinton’s visit is therefore hardly a coincidence—yet a scan of major U.S. news outlets show this was essentially missed. Here’s the Financial Times report today:
India has signalled its willingness to restart talks with Pakistan, stalled since the devastating terror attacks on Mumbai almost a year ago, to ease tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals. The turnround comes as Pakistan’s army is engaged in a bitter fight with Taliban militants intent on bringing mayhem and carnage to the streets of the country’s main cities. On a high-profile visit to the disputed territory of Kashmir, Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, urged Pakistan to move forward a dialogue towards a “permanent peace” between the two countries, which have fought two wars since partition 62 years ago…
The offer of India’s “hand of friendship” was made deliberately as Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, embarked on a three-day visit to Pakistan. Her visit underscores Washington’s desire to help Pakistan fight Taliban militants in its border areas and regenerate a state badly damaged by years of military rule. Although Mrs Clinton has avoided public mention of Kashmir, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan, the US and the international community are keen to see a reduction of tensions across the heavily militarised border. The lessening of the perceived threat from India would allow the Pakistan army, which has long considered New Delhi the enemy, greater freedom to deploy more troops in the fight against Taliban militants on the border with Afghanistan.
Hillary Clinton’s remarks also show a redefinition of America’s points of alignment. She spoke of her deep attachment to the people of Pakistan and America’s commitment to Pakistani democracy. This was a significant thematic shift from the Bush years, in which relations with Pakistan’s military had been lauded as the key axis of the relationship. She also expressed support for the Pakistani government’s offensive against domestic Taliban factions and its efforts to reassert control in the northwest. Whereas prior diplomatic visitors had been quietly shuffled to secret meetings with military and civilian powerbrokers in Islamabad, Secretary Clinton faced down critical audiences of journalists and students, defending the Obama Administration’s heavy use of drones notwithstanding heavy civilian casualties.
Pakistan’s The Nation offered a harsh judgment:
Hillary Clinton’s visit has brought nothing new to the Pakistani people. In fact it seems like a PR exercise – but who would buy what the U.S. is selling?
But the usually reliable journal falls far short of the mark. An important part of Clinton’s job is public diplomacy, and her remarks in Pakistan this week are just that. A focal relationship is being recast, new points of connection are being defined, and criticisms once only whispered in back corridors are now stated openly. Clinton has made clear that the United States is prepared to dish out serious criticism, and also to receive it in return. Pakistan, at long last, is being treated as a fellow democracy and not as a military dictatorship in waiting. Beyond this, Clinton has forced open again a platform for more peaceful relations between the subcontinent’s two major powers.
No one thinks peace is just around the corner for Pakistan. But we are witnessing the development of a policy that seriously engages its problems.
More from Scott Horton:
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From the June 2014 issue
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