In The News

In Pakistan: Public Reaction to “Not Doing Enough”

March 7, 2007

Last week, U.S. Vice President Cheney warned of tougher legislation against Pakistan from a Democrat-controlled Congress and the withdrawal of aid to ensure its compliance with U.S. policy in the War on Terror. Here in Pakistan, where news coverage of these comments have been repeatedly broadcasted and published this past week, the public perceives this approach as somewhat stale, ignoring decades of Pakistani-Afghan history, Pakistan’s own culture and traditions, and unlikely to yield substantial results to benefit Afghanistan, Pakistan or the United States.Most Pakistanis believe that America pressures Pakistan to follow U.S. policy, even if it is detrimental to Pakistan’s national security, and this is simply unacceptable to most of Pakistani society. Pakistanis are too aware of their history of frail alliances with the U.S., extremely vigilant of the U.S.’s strengthening relations with India and Afghanistan and are increasingly uneasy about U.S. influence on events in their dangerous neighborhood. This public opinion and escalating discord is working against President Musharraf in an election year. Ever since taking office in October 1999, he has struggled to establish legitimacy for his office. Strong support from the U.S. has been important in stabilizing his regime, but Vice President Cheney’s visit and its aftermath have raised serious questions about its continuity, undermining his authority and adding to political uncertainty in Pakistan in the build-up to elections.Above all, the majority of Pakistani people are tired of hearing that Pakistan is “not doing enough” in the War on Terror and to halt the insurgency in Afghanistan. Pakistan has lost approximately 750 soldiers (compared to approximately 540 by the US-led coalition in Afghanistan) and an even greater number of civilians. A spate of suicide attacks on policemen, judges, and innocent civilians as a result of Pakistan’s involvement in this war have caused much grief and terror in Pakistani society.

This civil strife is exactly what the Pakistani public fears and many believe that responding to U.S. pressure will lead to further internal chaos. This fear is most palpable when discussing the foreign policy prescription of eliminating the Taliban and their supporters. As they are customarily Afghan or Pakistani Pashtuns, their elimination risks rebellion by a large section of Pashtuns who comprise the majority in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province or Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Pakistanis want to see the U.S. crafting foreign policies that better support Pakistan in the war on terror, such as helping President Musharraf work with tribal elders in Baluchistan and FATA and secure Pakistan’s western border, addressing the status of millions of Afghan refugees stretching its resources, and facilitating the resolution of long-standing disputes with Afghanistan over trade, arms, and narcotics.

Pakistan and the United States can work together to find a viable political solution and agree on a common approach, based on a dispassionate evaluation of previous failures and successes. Pakistan needs to realize that cross-border movements can no longer be unchecked, and find a solution that allays the fears of its allies that its territory is being used to launch terror attacks in Afghanistan. But ordinary Pakistanis want to see their country treated as a real ally rather than a client state; this popular opinion will likely have an increasingly dominant impact in Pakistani policy. To start perceiving the U.S. as a real ally they need to see tangible, strategic advantages to justify the high-risk of continuing their support for the War on Terror ” and not threats of the withdrawal of aid.

Simply applying more pressure on Islamabad may achieve nothing more than greasing President Musharraf’s tight rope between appeasing his allies and winning the support of the Pakistani majority for his policies. But it could also lead to disastrous consequences for the U.S. long into the future, as the country moves more towards democracy. A majority of Pakistanis look to the U.S. for support in holding free and fair elections, but they will not tolerate what they perceive as pressure to put U.S. policy ahead of Pakistan’s own interests and stability.

Long-term peace in the region requires a stable Pakistan and a long-term strategy for the War on Terror, which can only be implemented through sustained partnership and cooperation between the U.S and Pakistan. Unfortunately, news of potential cutbacks in aid before and after Vice President Cheney’s visit has worsened the situation in Pakistan.

All of Pakistan is studying America’s moves in the region. As U.S. policymakers consider hardening existing U.S. policy towards Pakistan, it is important that they don’t inadvertently isolate the everyday Pakistanis who will go to the voting booths next year.

View all posts by Hamid Sharif

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