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February 2011

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Prompted by the assassination of a courageous reform governor this article argues for a fundamental reassessment of American foreign policy in the region and a more “even-handed” approach to Pakistan and its neighbors.  –Ed.

Congress and Foreign Affairs

Salman Taseer, the reformist governor of Punjab Province, has become the latest victim of the dangerously rising tide of religious extremism in Pakistan.  On January 4, Governor Taseer was treacherously slain by one of his own bodyguards, a secret fundamentalist, because of the Governor’s campaign to repeal Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law.

After 9/11, Pakistan agreed to be a vital ally in the United States’ war against terrorism in Afghanistan.  Now, ten years later, extremists are creating a bloodbath inside Pakistan, with moderate Pakistanis like Governor Taseer prime targets.

Some of these are homegrown Pakistani extremists.  Others are members of Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban who were driven out of Afghanistan by the United States and its allies.  Both foreign and domestic extremists have taken refuge in Pakistan’s northwest tribal regions along Afghanistan’s border.  From their safe haven inside Pakistan they attack NATO forces in Afghanistan.  Over the past several years, Washington has brought increasing pressure on Pakistan to intensify what the United States sees as inadequate efforts to destroy the militants inside Pakistan.

Yet winning battles can only accomplish so much.  Pakistan’s army achieved victory in its 2008 operation against militants in the Swat Valley.  However, the campaign destroyed homes, mosques, and shops, and dislocated or killed thousands of civilians.  This drew the ire of the inhabitants towards the army and created support for the militants.

And the army’s victories don’t last.  Swat, which was declared militant free in June 2010, is again the locus of suicide bombings and assassinations of tribal leaders aligned with the Pakistan Army.  The backlash makes clear that in fighting the U.S. war, the Pakistani government has risked the support of the very people whose cooperation it needs to succeed.  This has not swayed U.S. war planners from their original strategy.  Instead, the United States insists that Pakistan redouble its efforts by launching an attack on the militants’ stronghold in North Waziristan.

Former U. S. Ambassador Anne Patterson had a better grasp of Pakistani realities when she sought to draw Washington’s attention to Islamabad’s preeminent concern:  Pakistan’s need for security from India.  Ignoring Pakistan’s security concerns places America and Pakistan at cross-purposes and dooms efforts at cooperation to failure.

Pakistan and India fought three major wars during the Twentieth Century.  Pakistan, much smaller geographically and economically than India, developed its nuclear deterrent out of fear of the nuclear weapons of India.  The two countries came close to nuclear war in 1999.  Pakistanis believe that India has never accepted the 1947 partition; that India is waiting for Pakistan to fail as an independent state; and that India is eager to annex Pakistan.  Hindu ultranationalists speak of the subcontinent in mytho-poetic terms as a sacred “cow” sacrilegiously sliced open to create Pakistan—and it is not a peaceful reintegration that they have in mind.  For Pakistanis, such talk evokes a horrifying re-play of images of massacre from the time of partition when a half million Hindus and Muslims lost their lives.

The enmity that exists between the two countries stems from a struggle to possess the province of Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan claim.  At the time of partition, Kashmir’s Hindu ruler successfully maneuvered to join Kashmir with India.  This was in spite of the fact that at the time Kashmir was more than 70% Muslim.  (It is 98% Muslim today.)  The UN has called on India to honor the universally accepted right of self-determination by conducting a plebiscite within Kashmir to determine the province’s fate.  Kashmiris would decide for themselves whether they would join India or Pakistan or become independent.  India has refused to hold the plebiscite.  Resolution of the issue of Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have repeatedly come to blows, is a prerequisite to the accomplishment of other imperatives, be it stemming the tide of religious extremism, bettering the people’s economic and social well-being, or halting the proliferation of nuclear arms on the subcontinent.  The U.S. and India accuse Pakistan of allowing the extremist phenomenon to grow by condoning acts of terrorism directed at India.  The United States seems unaware that containing militants might not be Pakistan’s top priority when Pakistan needs to maintain its security against India.

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The United States has time and again ignored Pakistan’s security concerns and courts India because of India’s bigger economy and so that India will act as a counterweight to China.  President Obama’s proposal, during his trip to India in November, that India be admitted as a permanent member of the UN Security council infuriated and frightened Pakistanis who feel acutely the sting of this partisan treatment of the two countries.  Pakistani soldiers and civilians are dying in a war that Pakistan believes (as clearly conveyed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her latest visit to Pakistan) to be a U.S. war imposed on Pakistan through threats.  Meanwhile, India is offered the plum of Security Council membership as a reward for defying the Council’s resolutions on Kashmir.  While innocent Pakistanis are killed in U.S. drone attacks, India is to be rewarded despite its atrocious record in Kashmir of official rape, torture, extrajudicial executions, and disappearances.  What offends Pakistanis most is that a permanent Indian presence on the Security Council would doom Kashmir’s only hope for an impartial resolution of its nightmarish situation. 

The U.S. failed to build trust, and continues to foster mistrust.   Pakistanis have not forgotten what they perceive as U.S. mistreatment in the past.  In 1990, the Pressler Amendment imposed sanctions against Pakistan, blocking U.S. economic and military aid as punishment for Pakistan’s pursuing a nuclear weapon.  Yet the United States had not sought to prevent Pakistan from following its nuclear program in the 1980s when the United States needed Pakistan to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.  Pakistanis  resent the Afghan war’s giving birth to the Taliban.  Afghan youths were given deadly weapons and spent the formative years of their lives fighting a U.S. proxy war against the Soviet Union.  These young men were purposefully pumped up with religious zeal to fight godless communism, only to be set loose after the U.S. won the Cold War.  The U.S. did nothing to rebuild Afghan society.  The feeling prevails in Pakistan that in like fashion America will abandon Pakistan after it wins its war on terror.  The widespread distrust of the U.S. allows Pakistan’s homegrown extremists to gain more followers who reject both America and the Pakistani government which the militants regard as a stooge of the United States. 

Obviously, U.S. policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan has been counterproductive.  The increasing religious extremism is severely testing the Pakistan government’s resolve to fight the militants.  Pakistan is a poor country which is straining under a heavy per capita defense budget, huge foreign debt, overpopulation, last year’s catastrophic floods, illiteracy and other human development issues, still-unresolved refugee issues from the U.S.-USSR war of the 1980’s, and now fast-spreading religious extremism.  The breakdown of civil society is seen in the murder of Pakistanis like Governor Taseer who espouse liberal ideas of justice and tolerance.  And there is no guarantee that the present disastrous trends will remain confined to the region.



Charles Pierson, also a Board Member of the Pakistan Reconstruction Project, is a lawyer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who writes on international law.

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