Islamabad: When Richard C. Holbrooke arrives here on Monday looking for ways to stop a runaway Islamic insurgency that is destabilizing Pakistan, he will find a pro-American but weak civilian government, and a powerful army unaccustomed and averse to fighting a domestic enemy.
In a nuclear-armed nation regarded as an ally of the US and considered pivotal by the Obama administration for ending the war in neighbouring Afghanistan, Holbrooke will face a surge of anti-American sentiment on clear display by private citizens, public officials and increasingly potent television talk shows.
Some remedies offered by his Pakistani hosts are likely to be unappealing. On almost every front, Pakistani leaders are calling for less US involvement, or at least the appearance of it. The main reason for the swell in resentment here is the very strategy that the US government considers its prime success against Al Qaeda: missile strikes delivered by remotely piloted aircraft against militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Against attacks: Members of the fundamental rights commission of Pakistan chant slogans in Hyderabad, Sind, on 4 February during a protest march against the US drone attacks in the tribal areas. Akram Shahid / Reuters
To the surprise of many Pakistanis, who had been promised by their leaders that the new administration in Washington would be different, US drone aircraft fired missiles at two areas in the tribal belt just three days after President Barack Obama’s inauguration. According to the Pakistanis, as many as 21 civilians were killed by the strikes, in north and south Waziristan.
Fury at the continued airstrikes is considered to be one of the reasons for the poor showing of President Asif Ali Zardari in public opinion surveys. Zardari is viewed by many Pakistanis as too close to his American patrons. He is widely believed in Pakistan to have agreed to a request from president George W. Bush for a widening of the drone strikes, which had been conducted far more sparingly before he came to power last September.
Trying on Saturday to assuage an angry public, Zardari told an audience in Peshawar, a city in the North-West Frontier Province, his first visit there since he became President, that during Holbrooke's visit he would argue against the drone attacks. According to an account by the Pakistani state press agency, Zardari said that the drone attacks were “counterproductive” and that the “day was not far away when these attacks will be stopped.”
The Holbrooke visit will give him the opportunity, Zardari was reported to have said, to educate the Obama administration. “We will tell them fighting was no solution to the imbroglio,” Zardari was quoted as having said, “and let us handle it in our own way, as we know better than them as to how best the issue could be tackled.”
Pakistani officials said they agreed with the US assessment that the air strikes had killed some of the senior leadership of Al Qaeda. But the civilian casualties that have accompanied the attacks have accelerated anti-American feelings and made the Pakistani military appear feeble, they said. They argued that short-term tactical gains were likely to be outstripped by long-term strategic losses.
“Even when the real militants get killed, there is also a high probability that unarmed civilians get killed,” said Farhatullah Babar, spokesman for Zardari. “People get galvanized and become sympathetic to the militants.”
The best alternative, Babar and former and current military officials said, was for the Americans to share their intelligence with the Pakistanis, and for the Pakistanis to carry out the attacks. If Pakistan conducted the air raids, they said, the militants could not contend that the battle against them was “America’s war”.
At the very least, the Pakistanis say, they will drive home to Holbrooke the need for US military aid to help against the insurgents—in particular, helicopters, as well as night-vision gear, which, they say, has been denied to them in recent years.
Even if the US increases military assistance for fighting the insurgency, it will be difficult to coax a better counterterrorism performance from the Pakistani army, in part because deep suspicion about US intentions has penetrated it.
Obama said last week that a key goal would be to prevent nuclear-armed Pakistan from destabilizing Afghanistan. By that, he is widely understood to have meant that the jihadis who use the tribal area as a base to attack American troops in Afghanistan, and to sweep down elsewhere in Pakistan, must be conquered.
The belief, according to a senior Pakistani military officer, is that additional forces in Afghanistan would spill over into Pakistan. “Afghanistan is irrelevant,” said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The American troops are designed to create a mess in the tribal areas and in Pakistan, and take the nukes.”
Another major irritant in the bilateral relationship that could hamper cooperation from the Pakistani military stems from the decision by the Bush administration to complete a nuclear deal with India, Pakistan’s arch-enemy. The deal permits civilian nuclear trade between India and the US, even though India has not signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
This enhanced relationship was interpreted as a serious snub to Pakistan, said Maleeha Lodhi, who served twice as Pakistani ambassador to the US.
“The Indo-US deal,” she said, “signified to the Pakistani military that while Washington saw its ties with Pakistan in tactical terms, the strategic relationship was forged with India.”
To overcome qualms in Pakistan about the US, Holbrooke may emphasize Washington’s plans for a dramatic increase in aid to the country’s educational, health and judicial systems, all areas that have been supported in the past by the US, but to little effect because of deep corruption. In line with legislation for the assistance written by vice-president Joe Biden when he was in the Senate, Holbrooke will insist that the flow of aid depends on Pakistan’s determination to act against terrorism.
Here, that condition, too, is considered demeaning.
“An approach that treats Pakistan from the paradigm of ‘hired help,’ rather than valued ally,” Lodhi wrote in a Pakistani daily, The News, “should be unacceptable to Islamabad”.
© 2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES