The evening after the conclusion of the Pakistan-U.S. strategic dialogue, soon after the Pakistani delegation had said its goodbyes and boarded the flight home, President Obama’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke gave an interview to a major American news channel.
During the interview, Holbrooke was asked whether Pakistan had given the U.S. “a commitment that they would go after sanctuaries on their own territory”. He replied: “We urge them to do more. And they are gradually doing more, not as much perhaps as we would want.” While he went on to recognize that Pakistan was doing more than it had in previous years, the tone and content of the statement largely defined the public construction of both Pakistan’s role and the point of the dialogue in the American media.
The construction of Pakistan as a complicated country with shifty interests and many secret agendas has thus continued even after the strategic dialogue, which was sold as a much-touted trust-building measure. On television again on Sunday Holbrooke deflected a question about why Pakistan always seemed to have excuses when asked to take on the insurgent groups on its own territory by saying that he was “not there to defend Pakistan or the Pakistani Army”.
The tone and tenor of all these statements, and the recurrent characterization of the U.S. as a patient, cajoling ally heaping billions of dollars in civilian and military aid on a shadowy Pakistan, is notable for several reasons. It provides an indication of how the image of Pakistan continues to be created before the American public.
While the U.S. engages in talks and deals with the same Taliban that Pakistan is accused of canoodling with…the facts are never allowed to impact the narrative of the Af-Pak war.
During his campaign, and continuing through these first years, the Obama administration has adeptly begun to deflect the failures of Afghanistan on not itself but on Pakistan. To substantiate this claim, administration officials including Holbrooke have become adept at counting down the number of terrorist groups currently operating with impunity in that country. Nearly every debate focusing on Afghanistan ends with a discussion of how American forces in the region are routinely and continually undermined by their attackers’ ability to run off across the border into Pakistan.
In this latest instance, Holbrooke did mention that thousands of Pakistanis have been killed by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, but this integrally important fact was presented, as always, as a convenient aside—the preface to allegations that reiterate the fact that the Pakistani agenda remains at best murky and at worst downright antithetical to American interests.
There are other advantages to the construction of Pakistan as a shady villain. The Obama administration is well aware of the fact that inevitably, some nefarious plot to conduct a terrorist attack in the U.S. will eventually be successful. Given that terrorists routinely strike soft targets and aim to cause civilian casualties, it is a virtual impossibility to prevent such an eventuality.
If Pakistan has already been defined as a murky place, consisting largely of terrorist hideouts and a population that continues to hate the United States regardless of its benevolence, there is unlikely to be much political opposition to an aerial bombing campaign that in the words of President Obama would “disrupt, dismantle and eventually defeat” Al Qaeda in Pakistan. While the American public is largely war weary, a new terror attack could well provide the impetus to conduct an operation that would use massive American airpower to take care of the Pakistan problem.
Strategic relationships are constructed largely by the party that controls the narrative. In the case of Pakistan and the U.S., it is undoubted that the latter is involved in just as many shadowy negotiations and multiple games as Pakistan. Even as the Obama administration impressed upon Pakistan the necessity of an operation in North Waziristan, Nato airplanes were reportedly transporting various members of the Afghan Taliban for discussion with the Karzai administration. Similarly, an important issue that officials of the Obama administration brought to the table during the talks was the granting of visas to several hundred CIA operatives that the U.S. wants to send to Pakistan to carry out covert operations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
This then is the central contradiction that remains invisible to the American public. While the U.S. engages in talks and deals with the same Taliban that Pakistan is accused of canoodling with, and the CIA carries out security operations and extra-judicial killings with impunity, the facts are never allowed to impact the narrative of the Af-Pak war.
Pakistan’s loss in these negotiations is thus not the failure to procure a civilian-nuclear energy deal similar to the one provided to India, nor the inability to get some reassurance from the United States to mediate in the Kashmir issue. Pakistan’s trouncing is comprised of its complete failure to provide its side of the story to any degree of prominence in the Afghanistan-Pakistan narrative.
The challenge before Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership vis-à-vis its relationship with the U.S. thus does not pivot on the commitments of aid or the energy projects it can negotiate before it loses its strategic bargaining chips. Instead, it should focus on gaining some control over the narrative of the Af-Pak conflict and positioning Pakistan on the world stage as a victim rather than a perpetrator of terrorism.
During a week when much of Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership was in Washington, not a single American media outlet focused on the over three hundred suicide bombings that have taken place in Pakistan this year, nor the thousands of innocent Pakistanis that have been killed at the hands of terrorist groups. The world’s blindness to Pakistan’s pain leaves the country vulnerable to invasion and attack in the unfortunate event of another terrorist attack on American soil.