November 13, 2009

Washington-based Erum Haider looks back at US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan in analysing the trust deficit between two partners in the war on terror.

Clearly, I’ve been away from home for too long. And I am almost certainly going to be accused of batting for the other team now. But why would a smart and politically savvy anchor like Asma Shirazi tell Hillary Clinton that Pakistan is fighting “your war, not our war?” Is there still doubt that the Taliban are very much Pakistan’s problem, notwithstanding anything the US or previous Pakistani governments had to do with creating the hydra-headed monster?

It’s difficult to fight a common enemy when you’re secretly convinced that you’re on opposite teams. While watching Clinton’s hour-long discussion with some of the top news anchors in the country, I realized, yet again, how uneasy a path the “liberal” forces in Pakistan tread. While all of us agree that that militancy perpetrated by extremists needs to end, we’re less sure about whether we support the United States’ campaign to put an end to the Taliban and other extremist forces. In fact, we’re not even convinced that the US is sincerely trying to end terrorist violence in the region.

Which is funny, because that’s what they secretly believe about us, too.

Three weeks ago, a closed-door discussion between Pakistani and American political analysts brought the degree of mutual suspicion between the countries to the forefront. A prominent lawyer who is currently working on several high-profile cases related to national security dissected the renamed Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill during his presentation. This isn’t about money, our journalists and analysts argued; it’s about respect. And when you insinuate that an army that has lost soldiers in a war is secretly funding militants, we consider it an insult. Secondly, implying that the civilian government does not already have complete control over the army (or its nuclear weapons) hit a raw nerve: it is simply not the business of outsiders to take speculative information and state it as fact. For one thing, intelligence agencies the world over infiltrate terrorist groups, but making spy tactics a public fact defeats the purpose of classified information. Members of the Pakistan delegation went on to point out that while the military and the ISI may be strong institutions in Pakistan, Americans tend to think of them as a parallel government. Which is, at best, a pretty tall claim and should be backed up by hard evidence.

Just moments later, a former US Ambassador articulated an analogous complaint. “There are people in your country, educated and informed people, who believe that US intelligence agencies are secretly funding Al-Qaeda. Or that the CIA actually orchestrated the 9/11 attacks… which is preposterous.”

I was suddenly left feeling just a little exposed.

As someone in the news business, or simply part of the “intelligentsia,” I’ve always found it far more comfortable to err on the side of suspicion. Which may be a safer position to take, but often makes me only a shade better than your average conspiracy theorist. For every myth the US is guilty of indulging in with regards to Pakistan, I have a few of my own: that the US ultimately wants to take over the country, one embassy at a time; that America is really just facilitating the breakup of the state and will divvy up the provinces between Afghanistan and India; and that they have imperial designs on our economy, trade and agriculture.

These may or may not be true; equally, it is anyone’s guess whether the CIA or ISI is secretly channeling funds to terrorists in Waziristan. But while conspiracy theories are comfortable “I-told-you-so” sticks to beat your opponents with, the mutual suspicion that follows certainly doesn’t make for very good military strategy. And that may just be the greatest edge that a rabble of intolerant and ruthless militants has over two powerful and democratic nations.