Friday, August 20, 2010

Scapegoat: Pakistan

The "big news" out of the Wikileaks controversy recently (whereby the website released 92,000 classified documents to the press about the Afghan war from 2004-09) was the role of Pakistan in the chaos. Well, there was a bigger story, namely how the war was in itself becoming a more obvious nightmare, but the American mainstream press opted to cover the "shocking" news that the Pakistan intelligence agency (the ISI) was supporting the Taliban and the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, even though Pakistan gets a lot of (military) aid from the U.S. The episode shows just how much Pakistan is America's whipping boy in all of this mess. Not surprisingly, the horrible flooding tragedy that has left one-fifth of Pakistan underwater as of right now is not getting much media attention in the U.S., and sorely-needed donations are lagging badly behind. As the BBC asked, who cares about Pakistan? The U.S. perception of Pakistan as a terrorist wonderland (which is problematic as it is) might be a major reason America has dropped the ball on this one (unlike Britain, which has done much more). Click here for ways to help the relief effort.

The Wikileaks leak (some call it the Afghan War Diary) was maybe the largest leak in U.S. military history. The New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel, the three media outlets that got an advanced copy, determined the information was real in them. In them, there was extensive information about coalition forces killing civilians (that went unreported), increased Taliban attacks, increased instability in Afghanistan, and counterinsurgency support from both Pakistan and Iran.

Now, there could be a few major stories in this. The biggest one would appear to be the complete unraveling of the war effort. These reports make it very obvious that things aren't going well at all for the U.S. in Afghanistan, and that they seem to be deteriorating. There's also a question of the media, as in, should Wikileaks be releasing this information? Considering there really wasn't anything that new in it, and considering how secretive our government has become in general, and especially about war, I'd argue it is entirely responsible for them to release this information. Now, the apparent source of the leak, Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, might have to be disciplined by the military. I understand the chain of command, and the fact that he violated military protocol to leak this information, so I suspect some sort of punishment is warranted, even if he did a public service by leaking the information.

I'd argue the Pakistan/ISI/Taliban link is probably only the third biggest story in this whole thing, even though that's what is being talked about most here. First off, d'uh, of course the ISI was helping the Taliban. We've known this for a while. The ISI helped set the Taliban up in the 90s. Shocker they'd help them.

Second, why wouldn't the ISI do this? Think about it for a second...Pakistan shares a border with a much bigger, much stronger (militarily and economically) rival, India - the nature of the partition has something to do with that, but I digress. The last thing Pakistan can afford to have is a non-ally on its other border, Afghanistan. If the U.S. or the international community at large took a more active role over the years at getting a settlement on the India-Pakistan issue (namely, Kashmir), it is entirely possible the situation would be very different. Both nations could reasonably de-escalate their military posturing with each other. You'd need a great power, or several, to help provide a credible commitment to ensure that whatever settlement was reached would be honored, but if that was in place, I see no reason why such a move couldn't occur. Tensions would decline significantly. Of course, since nobody, especially the lone superpower in the world (America) has bothered with this, Pakistan and India still have each other in their respective gages. The U.S. hasn't helped matters, with it's nuclear deal with India a few years ago.

So, yeah, it only makes sense that Pakistan would want to keep the Taliban, who it knows, in power in Afghanistan, versus some U.S. stooges (like the Karzai regime), who they don't trust. Nothing surprising there at all. But instead of discussing the ISI-Taliban link in light of the clear indication it gives for a need to work on the India-Pakistan issue, the press, along with political leaders, decided to just dump on Pakistan. Not helpful.

I'm not saying it's good that the ISI is supporting the Taliban, or that the Taliban is good. I'm just saying, a simple reading of strategy would tell us what's really going on - the Pakistan/Afghanistan issue is closely tied to the Pakistan/India issue. Had the press reported the issue in such a light, it actually would have been informative, and productive. The only way to de-link Pakistan from the Taliban would be to decrease tensions on its major border - get some sort of deal with India on Kashmir.

What would that deal look like? I have no idea, other than to say that it should require real compromise from both sides. Pakistan should not support the violence in that area, but India should also acknowledge their having the territory is problematic as well. Quick history lesson: Kashmir was Muslim-dominant (over 75%), and Pakistan anticipated the Maharaja, the ruler of the region, would opt to join Pakistan because of this fact during the partition time (rulers were supposed to decide if they would join India or Pakistan). However, he hesitated, and Pakistan sent in some Pashtun guerrillas to convince him to join Pakistan. In response, the Maharaja agreed to join India if they protected him. The UN argued that Kashmiris should get to decide their own future, something India has denied them so long as Pakistan kept troops in the area. So, yeah, at the very least, problematic.

But instead of recognizing this as the issue at hand, we get the "this is all Pakistan's fault" and "how dare they" angle. Again, it's not that Pakistan is doing the right thing here. It's that it's doing the rational thing considering the situation, even if that isn't really good.

So, instead of seeing the Afghan War Diary as a major indictment against the Afghan war, it has become an indictment of Pakistan. Of course. They're brown and Muslim, why should we trust them? Hell, look at all the venomous hatred being spewed toward American-Muslims with the "Ground Zero" (or, as I like to call it, the Burlington Coat Factory) Islamic Center and mosques all over the country. Pakistan fits the scapegoat glove perfectly.

And, sadly, when a country that has few institutions (no thanks to years of military rule, approved by Washington, that, not surprisingly, didn't lead to any real development of the country) gets hit with a natural disaster, like the flooding that has occurred recently, it is not capable of dealing with the consequences. Especially not when its "President" is basically a mafia kingpin living off his dead wife's name (who somehow has become deified in the country, despite her many serious flaws, especially corruption - see, poor education system and poor political development = bizzare political hero-worship and strange nationalism) who didn't return to the country from a foreign trip until many days after the tragedy began. Is this Zardari's Katrina? Maybe.

The floods have left at least 1,600 people dead, over two million homeless, and have affected over 14 million - or 1 in 10 Pakistanis. These are staggering numbers: more people will suffer from this than the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The UN has appealed to the international community, saying the relief operation needs to be increased substantially.

Yet, there has been little U.S. coverage of the tragedy. You'd think that if a key ally (albeit a problematic one) suffered such a tragedy, it would be a huge deal. Aid appeals, news stories, donation camps, would all spring up. Not for Pakistan, apparently. Much of the coverage has focused on the potential for religious extremists to take advantage of the situation. Of course, this is not really accurate.

In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if all the negative coverage, which is sort of fair but woefully incomplete (since we ignore so much of the crucial political context when we talk about Pakistan in the U.S.), has made Americans less sympathetic to the suffering of Pakistanis. See, this is what happens when you scapegoat somebody, especially when the scapegoating isn't entirely fair. You lose your own sense of humanity in the process.

Please don't lose your own sense of humanity. Donate if you can to help the flood victims. We've listed a variety of ways to help here.

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