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February 19, 2011

How Pakistan is seen by the Washington think tanks


February 19, 2011

WASHINGTON: After four and a half hours of listening recently in Washington DC to South Asia specialists on three different panels divining Pakistan’s future and the US role, Moeed Yusuf, of the US Institute of Peace (USIP), a Pakistani native and a convener of the marathon session, concluded with a sigh of relief: “At least no one suggested Pakistan and the US go their separate ways.”
His remark actually conjured up what is essentially that mythical elephant in the room. For such a pessimistic and as yet unspoken option lurked beneath the much of the gloomy analysis of some of the most knowledgeable commentators of the region. If Pakistan and the US were a married couple instead of being strategic players (if not partners), counselors would recommend at least a long, trial separation, if not total divorce.
The occasion was a full morning entitled “The future of Pakistan” at the DC headquarters of the think tank USIP, co-sponsored by another eminent think tank, the Brookings Institute and its South Asia specialist, Stephen P Cohen. It might have been more realistic to adopt the title used by the Heritage Foundation, another DC think tank, which offered a discussion on Pakistan and the US under the title, “Deadly embrace”.
About 300 listeners jammed the conference hall, with an overflow accommodated in another hall linked by closed-circuit TV. Most of the audience was Washington DC suits. With only a sprinkling of Pakistanis and other Asians, suggesting the large and vital Pakistani community in the region may have known something of the outcome that the Americans attending did not.
Washington hosts what appears to be an endless fascination that borders on fantasy about the Pakistan-US relationship. Hardly a week goes by without some specialists gathering on panels to examine the entrails of that relationship, especially now as it relates to US combat in Afghanistan, another subject that often descends to fantasy.
Among weighty think

tanks dealing with international relations, Pakistan pops up as a subject far more often than almost any other Asian concern, such as India, North Korea or even China. As for the latter, right-wing (or conservative) think tanks such as Heritage or the American Enterprise Institute, fortified, I suspect, by generous donations from Taiwan, most often deal with China but too often in the context of cross-strait relations, suggesting an irrational equation between Taiwan and the mainland.
Such sessions I attend are mainstream affairs, never postulating an end to military support or action or, heaven forbid, a withdrawal of US interest to let the players sort out the problems themselves.
Much of the DC hand wringing about Pakistan often focuses on what the US must do to save its relationship with that benighted country. The concern lately has spread to Afghanistan but few worry as much about other South Asian players, such as India, Bangladesh (an intellectual desert as far as DC think tanks are concerned) or Nepal. I suspect the nervousness over saving Pakistan is rooted more than 60 years ago when the notorious China lobby of Henry Luce and others branded those Mao-influenced diplomats in the State Department as traitors for losing Chiang kai-Shek’s China to Mao ze-Dong. None now wants the distinction of losing Pakistan even if Pakistanis are doing a good job of it themselves.
To their credit, at least two of the panelists gazing into the future at the USIP concluded that ‘it was not America that was going to save Pakistan. It will be Pakistanis who will save Pakistan,” although without specifying exactly how this feat was to be accomplished.
There is so much to chew over in the US-Pakistan relationship, which since the 1950s has been beset by one misunderstanding after another, from the time Ayub Khan saw the US as a steady supplier of arms to use against India and John Foster Dulles saw Pakistan as a jigsaw piece for building a containing wall in Central Asia against the Soviet Union.
In all these panel discussions, there is much use of words such as ‘partnership’ and ‘ally’, without examining why Pakistan permits itself to be the safe haven for forces fighting American soldiers in Afghanistan or even why dispatching an aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal was the best the US could do to save Pakistan from splitting in two in 1971. I have not heard any suggestion that in fact Pakistan, like Egypt or Israel, is more of an American client state than allies, a more realistic definition of the relationship that might produce more realistic policies.
I attend these sessions eagerly, now that I no longer have to write spot stories for deadlines, in the hope of seeing good friends, staying up to date, learning more, particularly searching for fresh insight that indicates some progress in thinking since I became involved with Pakistan after I opened the first Associated Press bureau there in 1969. In my attendance at these sessions as with my visits to Pakistan, I find myself meeting the sons and daughters of the men and women I met in the early 70s and find they are making the same mistakes as their elders.
Not much new rose out of the USIP panels. Wendy Chamberlin, who was US ambassador to Pakistan at the time of 9/11 and now heads of the Middle East Institute in Washington, provoked a gasp if not a titter when she suggested sex as a factor in the Pakistan imbroglio. She went on to explain that mis-directed, runaway testosterone played a role in the persistent violence there. I have often made similar suggestions when in Pakistan about Pakistani men not having enough orgasm, a remark that usually provokes very funny looks my way.
The conversations dealt with familiar topics, the disconnect between the US and Pakistani public opinion, the power of religion and so on. Christine Fair, a young professor at Georgetown University, insisted: “We need to see Pakistan as it is and deal with it on its terms.” She also had a good word for the appeal of Sharia law on the basis of what she said was its aim for good governance and its stand against corruption.
The role of fundamentalist Islam in Pakistan still seems to arouse relatively little concern among Pakistanis, although I notice rising apprehension among my friends there. Educated Pakistanis long ago surrendered the control of the religion to a noisy if fringe leadership. Do you encounter anyone from the well-educated classes actually serving as imams or in other positions of influence in Islam? That state is unlikely to change unless Islamist power threatens the military, the bureaucracy and an elite business class satisfied to earn high profits using cheap labour and paying little or no taxes.
The panels displayed concern about Pakistan’s perilous economic state without reference to its thriving black economy (just ride through Defense Society in Karachi or the Cantonment in Lahore). Huma Yusuf, a young reporter for a Karachi-based newspaper, now on a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in DC as well as a graduate of Harvard and a program at MIT, served on a panel, representing, whether she wanted to or not, young, well-educated Pakistan. I asked her after her speaking stint where her generation was in Pakistan. She replied sadly, they are all trying to get out of Pakistan.
The above-mentioned Moeed Yusuf thought that the years of coalition government to which Pakistan is doomed eventually might create a democracy similar to that enjoyed in India, a view that seems very long-term. As for the future of Pakistan, those interested may read Stephen Cohen’s summary of papers on the subject produced by scholars last year in the placid surroundings of Bellagio, Italy at the Brookings Institute web site. Otherwise, after four and a half hours, no big idea emerged, the future of Pakistan remained as murky as ever.

The writer served as the first AP Bureau chief in Islamabad in 1969 and was a close friend of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He later set up a library in Karachi named after his late wife.

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