No Comment — May 8, 2012, 12:56 pm

The Costs of Secrecy in Pakistan

If America’s national-security mavens had to identify their biggest worry on a world map, odds are that the pin would land within a hundred miles of Islamabad. Once hailed as America’s most vital non-NATO ally, and the recipient of more than $10 billion in aid since 2001, Pakistan is now emerging as a nightmare. It may be home to the world’s fastest-growing nuclear stockpile, and it is certainly the most worrisome source of nuclear proliferation over the past decade. Its security forces have a mysteriously cozy relationship with scheduled terrorist forces, such as Lashkar-e Taiba, which launched a series of attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, killing or injuring at least 472 people. And it is a state in abject collapse—unable to convince its citizens to pay taxes, to provide basic utilities to its people, to keep order, or to provide for essential defense. Significantly, Pakistan is also a nation filled with rage against the United States—a dangerous enemy in the making. How could this happen in a country that could barely stand up without massive U.S. assistance?

Ali Chishti grapples with the demonization of the United States in Pakistan in a piece in Lahore’s Friday Times:

In a recent Gallup survey conducted in Pakistan, 35 percent of the people hold the US responsible for terrorism in Pakistan, 39 percent say it is America’s war that Pakistanis are fighting and 52 percent think that WikiLeaks has been published by the Americans themselves. At one of the country’s biggest universities, the Karachi University, the flag of the US, Israel and India are embossed on a road by an Islamist party for students to walk over as a sign of hate. Recently, Altaf Hussain, the leader of one of the most secular political parties—the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM)—lashed out at the US over the Aafia Siddiqui issue. So why is it that the US, which has given Pakistan billions in aid and whom the Pakistani security establishment holds regular “strategic talks” with, has become a punching bag for all segments of society in Pakistan?

There is no doubt at this point that the United States has made a series of spectacular errors in judgment in dealing with Pakistan—bipartisan errors, largely forged by a national-security apparatus that serves both parties, covets secrecy, and detests being challenged over its mistakes. Some of its mistakes in Pakistan were avoidable, such as bombing a Pakistani border outpost and sending CIA contractor Raymond Davis to operate in an environment he didn’t understand. But it is becoming increasingly clear that secrecy itself is the largest and most consequential of its errors.

When the United States first broached with Pervez Musharraf the idea of using drones to strike at terrorists operating on Pakistani soil, his consent was apparently contingent on an understanding specifying that the strikes be a covert operation run by the CIA. This might have made some sense in 2004, but what has emerged since then is a sustained military campaign involving some 290 strikes and 2,700 casualties. America’s silence emboldened America’s critics in Pakistan, cloaking the Pakistani politicians who authorized the strikes (and even furnished their own targets) while allowing the United States to be attacked as a bloodthirsty enemy that was violating Pakistan’s sovereignty and killing hundreds of innocents.

When American special-ops units raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, American spokesmen at first described it as a joint Pakistan–U.S. operation. This was false, of course, but it was said in the hope that senior Pakistani military figures would claim credit for the raid and celebrate it, rather than condemn it. (It probably also reflected a previously agreed-upon protocol for raids similar to the one in place in Yemen.) After a key meeting of senior Pakistani military leaders, however, the country’s top brass began condemning the United States. This was a key turning point in the U.S.–Pakistan relationship, and America’s foolish secrecy had paved the way.

The United States is a democratic state whose people have a right to be informed about facts allowing them to make essential national-security decisions. For all its weaknesses, Pakistan is also essentially a democratic state, whose people have a right to be informed about their vital national-security interests, particularly with respect to decisions affecting the use of lethal force on their own soil. What transpired in the drone war was essentially an agreement between the national-security elites of both nations to keep their respective publics in the dark about their operations. That agreement was fundamentally anti-democratic and corrupt. But it also revealed a profound American naïveté about the Pakistani security establishment and its dangerous exercises in rabble-rousing. America’s enemies in Pakistan have profited tremendously from this secrecy. America was victimized by it. As Ali Chishti notes, today one common viewpoint unites every significant party on the Pakistani political spectrum: hatred for the United States.

America does not need to be loved to operate effectively in the world. But it helps us to be understood and to avoid the costs attached to being reviled, particularly when the vitriol is based on misunderstanding. Putting an end to secretive operations in Pakistan and forcing Pakistani leaders to bear the consequences of their unpopular decisions would be a step in the right direction.

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