Winning Over The Pakistani Public
Washington’s approach to fighting militants has failed and is fuelling existing anti-US sentiment
US President Barack Obama’s now widely publicised phone call to President Asif Ali Zardari last week, urging the Pakistani leader to do more in fighting militancy, is hardly the best way forward for Washington to secure its interests in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
There are indeed gaps in the way that Pakistan has approached the challenge of fighting militants who have occupied parts of its territory along the Afghan border. But the fight that Pakistan is supposed to undertake is widely seen within the country as a campaign largely meant to promote US interests.
Though Pakistani leaders take pains in claiming repeatedly that the fight against militants is their very own, it is equally true that repeated messages from the United States and those too in public only reinforce the image of the effort getting under way at Washington’s behest.
To many Pakistanis, the application of continued US pressure is in very poor taste. While the US keeps on coming back to Pakistan with its well-known demands, many Pakistanis resent what they see as no more than Washington’s lip service in acknowledging the way Pakistan has already offered large-scale sacrifices and continues to suffer.
Elements of the way in which the US policy is being executed are seen by the broad majority of Pakistanis as a clear infringement of their country’s national security interests.
The most obvious such infringement is Washington’s blatant use of its pilot-less drone aircraft which repeatedly fly into the border regions of Pakistan, attack sites suspected to be havens for militants, and end up killing innocent civilians alongside militants.
Pakistan’s repeated requests for the drone technology to be passed on to Islamabad, so that such attacks have an indigenous stamp of approval, so far seem to have fallen on deaf ears in Washington. As the number of such attacks increases sharply with the passage of time, so does the scale of popular disapproval of Washington across Pakistan adding to the existing anti-US sentiment.
The issue of drones follows other popularly held reasons for disapproval of the US. Historically, the US-Pakistan relationship is seen in the south Asian country as being driven by military and strategic compulsions. Almost a decade after 9/11 catapulted Pakistan and the US to join hands in the name of the so-called war on terror, the US has little to show for having extended support that has been of benefit to average Pakistanis.
Indeed, the continuing drone attacks and the announcement of a $2 billion (Dh7.34 billion) military aid package for Pakistan by the US just last week, are the kinds of trends that only reinforce the conventional Pakistani view of Washington.
Fodder for criticism
Meanwhile, across Pakistan, in the past decade of US-Pakistan cooperation, a significant increase in poverty has provided ample fodder for criticism to opponents of US-Pakistan ties.
In this background, the image of the US pressing Pakistan periodically to reform itself internally is one trend that only invites criticism from a significant majority of the people across the country.
Going forward, some of the key lessons that the US must learn from its experience with Pakistan include the need to keep the relationship dependent eventually on earning popular goodwill. To this end, it is essential to evenly balance out resources between military objectives and the common good.
Unless ordinary Pakistanis acknowledge the benefits to their lives flowing from a close relationship with the US, it is hard to imagine how the popular sentiment will even begin to change towards Washington.
A US effort to press Pakistan towards or away from a policy choice must be done in private rather than in public. This is essential in order to demonstrate Washington’s determination to work with Pakistan rather than against the country’s core interests.
As the US-Pakistan debate progresses, it is absolutely vital for Washington to acknowledge that its policies towards the country have in fact failed to change public opinion, in spite of having spent billions of dollars. This may be a tragic reality coming a decade after the attacks against the United States.
Elements such as an apparently blind use of the much dreaded drones are part of the failure mode in this policy.
The sooner the US recognises the many gaps in its approach, the better chance it has of getting down to the business of revamping the way it wants to do business in Pakistan.