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America's Pakistan Problem

The relations of the United States with the people of Pakistan could not have been worse. The US military actions on Taliban and Al-Qaida bases within Pakistan have inflamed public opinion and led to perceptions that the US is at war with that country. The US "war on terror" in Pakistan has only fed Pakistani support for the Islamists.

LETTER FROM AMERICAjuly 19, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly8America’s Pakistan ProblemZia MianThe relations of the United States with the people of Pakistan could not have been worse. The US military actions on Taliban and Al-Qaida bases within Pakistan have inflamed public opinion and led to perceptions that the US is at war with that country. The US “war on terror” in Pakistan has only fed Pakistani support for the Islamists.The United States is struggling with Pakistan. The problem is manifold, encompassing a resurgent Al-Qaida, a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan with bases in Pakistan, and Islamist militancy in Pakistan’s tribal areas and the North-West Frontier Province. But most dam-aging of all for the US is that people in Pakistan overwhelmingly see the US as the problem.Seven years after the US and its allies attacked Afghanistan, Al-Qaida leaders retain a refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of theUS Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “In my judgment, the most likely near term attack on the United States will come from Al-Qaida via these safe havens”. This is despite the promise to crack down on Al-Qaida from Pervez Musharraf who ruled the country from 1999 until February this year. The US paid heavily for this promise, giving Pakistan nearly $ 11 billion in military and economic aid since 2002. Over 70 per cent of this money was for security-related programmes. Inde-pendent analysts who first revealed the scale ofUS financial aid to Pakistan as part of the so-called “war on terror” argued that the $ 11 billion “has likely been matched, if not exceeded, by additional classified funds provided towards intelli-gence and covert military action”. Afghan ProblemUS concerns also include the linked prob-lem of the Taliban resistance in Afghani-stan, whose fighters come across the border to fight and returns there when pursued by the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces. Monthly US casualties in Afghanistan are now at the highest level since 2001. MoreUS and NATO soldiers have been killed in the past two months in Afghanistan than in Iraq. There are now 32,000US troops in Afghanistan, the largest number since the invasion, and president George Bush says “We’re going to increase troops by 2009”. Some of these may be soldiers who are withdrawn from Iraq. The US is threatening to attack Al- Qaida and Taliban militants in Pakistan with even greater force. Reports suggest US special forces soldiers are pushing to conduct operations in Pakistan, and the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln is moving into position to add even greater airpower to support US forces in the area. But this will only serve to strengthen the perception that theUS is at war with Pakistan and inevitably inflict more civilian casualties and inflame public opinion.A May 2008 poll revealed Pakistanis are deeply opposed to American policies. Sixty per cent of Pakistanis believed the US “war on terror” seeks to weaken the Muslim world, and 15 per cent think its goal is to “ensureUS domination over Pakistan”. About one-third of Pakistanis now have a positive view of Al-Qaida, only half as many think positively of theUS.The poll revealed that 44 per cent of Pakistanis believe the US is the greatest threat to their personal safety (India is second, at 14 per cent). The Pakistani Tali-ban are seen as a threat by less than 10 per cent. Over 50 per cent of Pakistanis blame the US for the violence in their country. The Pakistani Taliban was blamed by less than 5 per cent. Rather than resort to more force to counter the Islamist militancy that threat-ens Pakistan, the US should first consider how its policies in the “war on terror”, in Afghanistan and Pakistan have failed and feed public animosity in Pakistan towards theUS and support for the Islamists. For its part, Pakistan needs to have a national conversation on what kind of future it wants, and whether this will be decided by brutal, ignorant and intolerant men with guns. Zia Mian (zia@princeton.edu) is a physicist with the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs.NEWEPW Index 2006Readers can download the complete author and article index (PDF files) for 2006 from the EPW web site.The index for 2005 is also available on the same page.

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