Afghanistan-Pakistan: Between the Rock and a Hard Place

She was supposedly on a mission to impress her hosts in Pakistan with a 'charm offensive.' However, the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, ended up stirring a controversy that even her most ardent well-wishers would find hard to contain.
Hillary Clinton's 3-day visit to Pakistan in the last week of October was billed as 'historic' and epochal long before it got underway. And it was close to being that in more senses than one.

For the first time in nearly six decades of a roller-coaster relationship between Pakistan and U.S., an American Secretary of State embarked on a journey to talk not only to her interlocutors in Pakistan's official hierarchy but also with those representing the people of Pakistan and reflecting their popular sentiments on the highly emotional issue of their country's relations with Washington. So she went to talk to students at a university in Lahore and field their questions; held a session with select representative of the news media, especially those dominating its tele-journalism; interacted with women of Pakistan at an open forum where she was given an earful of the perception that the Pakistani women have of their government's equation with her government

The choice of the venues for her public discourses and the broad spectrum of her interactions were cleverly designed to let the people of Pakistan have a measure of how Washington sees their country, and where Pakistan is placed on the global chess-board of the super power. At the same time an even greater purpose of these close encounters was to enable America's chief diplomat assess for herself the mood of the Pakistanis and fathom their feelings for U.S. and its policies, especially those relating to Afghanistan and the scourge of terrorism stalking their land.

On the face of it the whole exercise was tactfully arranged to let Hillary feel the pulse of Pakistan, and enable the Pakistanis to hear from the horse's mouth how their country's front-line role in the ongoing war in Afghanistan is appreciated by the stalwarts responsible for crafting the U.S. foreign policy.

Hillary Clinton's agenda was clearly well-formulated and tactfully unfolded. But what the spin doctors travelling with her couldn't foresee or control was how the first lady of American foreign policy was going to handle the delicate job of taking her agenda to the people over whom they had virtually no control. And that's where Hillary Clinton flunked the test.

Diplomats are said to be word merchants, and their caliber is determined solely by their ability to use their words to maximum effect. Diplomacy is also the art of soft-sell and not the bombastic sales style of a hawker peddling his stuff loudly to whoever may happen to be within his range. Hillary Clinton erred by being hectoring and arrogant in the way she tried to sell her agenda to her interlocutors, especially those not given to the art of diplomacy. She ruffled the feathers in Pakistan, among all her audiences, by telling them bluntly to either 'take it or leave it,' in reference to the controversial Kerry-Lugar aid package, under which U.S. has committed itself to provide Pakistan 1.5 billion dollars a year, for up to 5 years, in civilian assistance for infrastructural development of Pakistan.

The Kerry-Lugar Bill had become an issue of highly charged emotions in Pakistan long before Hillary set her foot on the Pakistani soil. The people of Pakistan, egged on by its intellectual classes and its robustly vigilant electronic and print media, had come to see in the aid package humiliating and insulting conditions deliberately built in. What was needed of Hillary was to soft-pedal her salesmanship of the controversial bill. But she chose, instead, to foist on her interlocutors by talking plainly and bluntly. The thrust of her argument may have had a ring of truth: it's the privilege of the aid-giver to wrap his aid into whatever conditions deemed fit from his vantage point. However, it's also the prerogative of the receiver to turn it down if it's perceived as down-grading his concerns and just crudely thrusting it upon him.

That's exactly how the people of Pakistan have perceived this aid package, and their worst fears were compounded by the hectoring mannerism of Hillary. Given any opportunity to voice their opinion-in a referendum or any other way-the people of Pakistan would have rejected this humiliating package with contempt. But they know there's no chance of their disgust with the bill being given the respect and deference it deserves because their rulers are sold to Washington; and those crafting policy, vis-à-vis Pakistan in Washington know that well, too. Hillary couldn't be anything but dead certain, while riding roughshod over the popular sensibilities of the people of Pakistan, that the rulers in Islamabad didn't have the guts to turn down the aid package, no matter how humiliating it may be to a man-on-the-street in Pakistan. It was her way of reminding the people of Pakistan that there could be no relief for them because their rulers were hooked on Washington's largesse.

The people of Pakistan similarly see no light at the end of the tunnel on the more explosive issue of terrorism stalking their land, because of their rulers' blind pursuit of the agenda on the war against terrorism dictated to them from Washington.

It's in pursuance of Washington's agenda that the Pakistan army is now engaged in a full scale military operation in South Waziristan, where Pentagon had been pressing them hard for months and years to be. But the military action is dictating its own agenda for the people of Pakistan, who must now learn to live with the terrorism of the Pakistani Taliban being perpetrated with virtual impunity in Pakistan's major towns and cities. The people of Pakistan are paying the ultimate price, in blood, for their rulers' total subservience to a strategy worked out for them overseas.

But even on that issue-the sacrifices in blood being exacted from them-the people of Pakistan didn't hear any words of consolation or sympathy for their plight and suffering from Hillary Clinton. Instead, she heaped scorn on both the people and their government by articulating, as loudly and sarcastically as she could, her inner feeling that she found it hard to believe that nobody in the government in Pakistan had any clue as to where the Al Qaeda 'high-value' assets' were ensconced in Pakistan's tribal area.

Hillary's sarcasm-and she seemed to make no effort to soften its import or impact-was seen by the people of Pakistan, rightly, as a very unkind cut and thrust from someone supposedly on a charm offensive. If that was her charm offensive what would be its opposite?

The people of Afghanistan-whose suffering is much older than that of their Pakistani counter-parts-are faring no better between the rock of Washington and the hard place of their marauding ruling elite.

Hamid Karzai, foisted on the Afghans on the strength of American tanks that rolled into Kabul in the aftermath of 9/11, has just won for himself a second term in office in a highly tainted and controversial election. The fact that his opponent in the race for president, former foreign minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, pulled out of the second round of election, before it could ever get underway, would be cold comfort for the Afghans. Abdullah is an even more loyal and supine servant of Washington than Karzai. On top of it, he's a Tajik from northern Afghanistan, and thus unacceptable to the majority Pashtuns whose ethnic sensitivities have largely shaped the history of Afghanistan.

The people of Afghanistan are finding themselves in the clutches of a double jeopardy. Hamid Karzai will remain their head of state for another five years in spite of his well-known corruption and that of his brother and other kith and kin. He has proved too clever even for the Americans who, it is no longer a secret, were fed up with his shenanigans and inability to govern the country; they wanted him replaced. But their choice of an alternative clearly showed a red rag to the majority Pashtuns of Afghanistan.

So now both the Americans and the Afghan people are stuck with Karzai, who has managed to retain his job against the wishes of the occupying American power and has romped home in spite of having rigged the ballot box in his favour. For want of no other viable alternative, the Americans have, willy- nilly, welcomed his re-election and given public attestation to their hope that his remaining in office would be in the best interest of their war effort and peace for the people of Afghanistan.

Hamid Karzai has made overtures to his 'brothers' among the Taliban to give up their armed struggle and return to the fold of his government. This is not such a novel idea; the Obama administration itself has been trying to wean away those of the Taliban from the terror campaign who would like to join the Afghan mainstream, and may have no objection to Karzai's olive branch.

However, the Taliban are unlikely to respond to Karzai's desperate gambit. They know that the Americans are getting weary of the war. The American people are getting tired of being fed on slogans and public opinion polls are making it increasingly crystal clear that they are now questioning the logic of this Afghan adventure in just the manner their past generation did, in the 1960s, in regard to the war in Vietnam.

President Barack Obama is coming under stress from his own Democrats, led by Vice President Joe Biden, to cut the American losses in Afghanistan and look for an honourable exit. Obama, himself, is dogged by indecision and lack of clarity on the issue. That he's dragging his feet on his military commanders' persistent demand for a major infusion of fresh troops-as many as up to 45,000-into the theatre of war is clear evidence of his being torn between the doves and the hawks. The war effort on the ground in Afghanistan is virtually on hold as far as the western allies are concerned, though not for the Taliban.

The Taliban, sensing inertia among their adversaries and sniffing weariness in their ranks are pressing on with their natural advantage-of knowing the terrain and the mood of the Afghan people, who can't interpret the American and European presence on their soil in any other way but neo-colonialism packaged as a war against terror.

The people on either side of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are the victims of the different perceptions of this great conflict between 21st century neo-colonialism, dressed up as an epic struggle to contain rabid terrorism, and a ferociously independent people's historical sense to fight back against any invader of their lands. To them war has been a way of life, something taken for granted especially when their patch of earth happened to be under foreign domination. The only difference in this epic struggle between foreign invasion and local resistance is that governments in powers and rulers, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, have also joined the ranks of foreign invaders, which makes this war so much more complex and bloodier. That makes the suffering of the people caught in the middle in both countries so much more tragic and gruesome.

The price being paid by the people of Pakistan is particularly horrendous and un-nerving to them. Over the past 6 decades they have gone through cyclical crises of confidence, which were largely non-violent, except for the crisis of 1970-71 in East Pakistan that broke up the country into two and heralded the birth of Bangladesh. But this bloody campaign that the Pakistani Taliban have now brought to the door-steps of he Pakistani people is not only exacting a heavy toll in blood from them but also adding to their trauma. They now find themselves hopelessly caught on the horns of a dilemma and don't know who is their enemy and who is a friend. That's a terrible and unenviable situation for any people, anywhere in the world.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 November 2009 on page no. 26

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