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Islamabad diary: Pakistan being short-changed again

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Ayaz Amir

We sold ourselves cheaply under Zia. We sold ourselves very cheap under Musharraf. Battered from all sides, we are selling ourselves cheap once again.

What good has American aid done us in the past? What do we have to show for it? The US Congress can keep the Kerry-Lugar assistance bill in one of its lockers. Far from working any wonders it will only be another instrument to keep us doing American bidding, often against our better judgment..

The sooner the present ruling setup gets this into their heads the better for the hapless people of Pakistan. We need a writing off – a complete writing off – of our foreign debt: about 40 billion dollars of it. And we need more US market access for our textile goods. These two things will do more for national confidence than the rest of the nonsense we are hearing at present.

The Americans are stuck in Afghanistan and have no idea of how to get out. They are counting on us and our army to do that which they have been unable to do themselves: strike a mortal blow at Al Qaida and the Taliban. Well, it is also in our interest to do so. Al Qaida is the enemy. All doubts on this score should have vanished by now. But we should be asking our American friends for the right type of assistance, not the crumbs that the present Pakistani leadership seems so glad to be settling for.

“Well, I’m actually quite impressed by the actions that the Pakistani government is now taking,” says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. With the Pakistan army launching a hastily-contrived operation in Dir and Buner, the Taliban in response seizing control of the Swat capital, Mingora, and Swatis in their tens of thousands being displaced from their homes, why shouldn’t she be impressed?

The American aim all along has been for the army to forswear the habits of a lifetime and forget India, and throw all it has against the growing threat from the Taliban. Now that this is indeed happening, and the army’s mindset is beginning to change slowly from east to west, Clinton should be impressed.

The Americans have us where they want us. They had to build the Iraq army from scratch. They are trying to create, with so far unsatisfactory results, a new Afghan army. Just look at the billions they have had to pour into Iraq and Afghanistan and the relative pittance being envisaged for Pakistan in the Kerry-Lugar bill and it becomes pretty clear that this is the cheapest free lunch the Americans are about to have at Pakistan’s expense.

This is an army which doesn’t have to be built up. It’s already there, the sixth or seventh largest in the world. It just has to be equipped with a few night vision goggles and helicopters – the new mantra of victory – and its neck has to be yanked from east to west for the US to get the breathing space it so desperately wants in Afghanistan.

In the first Gulf war, Hosni Mobarak of Egypt got seven billion dollars in US debt written off when he committed Egyptian troops to the US-led coalition. The General Motors and Ford bailouts are going to cost the US taxpayer anything from 30-50 billion dollars. And our paladins, both political and military, are congratulating themselves on 1.5 billion dollars a year over the next five years (7.5 billion dollars in all) for the sacrifice in blood and treasure Pakistan is being primed into making so that America gets to develop some kind of exit strategy from Afghanistan.

The Americans will be tired of Afghanistan by the time the next Obama election comes. One doesn’t have to be a prophet to see this coming. But we will be left counting the wreckage and mourning another opportunity lost.

We have to hand it to the Americans for being very clever with us. So relentless has been the psychological pressure on Pakistan in recent weeks that its weak leaders now seem more like galloping horses with blinders on their eyes, responding to the whip and rushing forward without really knowing what lies ahead. Al Qaida and the Taliban sure have to be fought but Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani should be calling the shots, and determining the pace of events, not His Highness Gen David Petraeus. But then with the custard pudding passing for the present Pakistani leadership, I suppose it doesn’t require much cleverness to have one’s way in Islamabad.

When he first appeared on the scene most of us in Pakistan took Hamid Karzai to be a dressed-up clown. But to our chagrin it’s not hard to see that he can hold his own in Washington better than our sovereign representative, destiny’s gift to Pakistan, Asif Zardari. Karzai at least can get his sentences straight. Our president faces a never-ending struggle with his syntax. Standing next to Hillary Clinton he said, “Today we sit here as three democratic states, enjoined in the history of democracy…” Hmm.

Pakistan is caught in a storm, buffeted by winds from all sides. And these are the horse-riders we have. With the skeletons in his closet, Zardari can be expected only to look out for himself. He is already indebted to the Americans for helping him to come to power. He knows that if the US pulls the rug from under his feet he is lost. He mumbles rehearsed words which sound worse than platitudes. It is too much to expect that he can stand up against the odds and court, where necessary, American displeasure.

We must disown the Kerry-Lugar bill and ask for a debt write-off. But don’t expect Zardari to make this call. He is attuned to other things.

The military leadership is not getting the political direction it needs. No wonder it often seems lost. But we have to back our army and soldiers, and learn some humility along the way. It is so easy to talk, become ghazis of words and verbiage, champions of TV discourse. Our soldiers are doing the fighting and dying. The least they deserve is our unstinting support.

American and British leaders visit their troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. What sort of people are we? Why hasn’t Zardari been to Swat and Waziristan? Why hasn’t Prime Minister Gilani been there? What prevents the PML-N leadership, and guys like me in the National Assembly, from going there? Our soldiers deserve better. They need less of our criticism and more of our support.

Which doesn’t mean we don’t call for more effective military action. Why wasn’t Mingora secured before the Dir and Buner operations were launched? In and around Mingora a humanitarian disaster is looming, with people trapped in their homes and unable to leave for safety. The Taliban are in full control. There were troops stationed in the Mingora valley. Shouldn’t they have pre-empted the advance of the Taliban?

Here are two SMSs I have received from Mingora: (1) “Qeyamat ka sama apni nazron se dekh raha hoon; log curfew relaxation ka faida utha kar bhag rahe hain” (images of the Day of Judgment I am seeing with my eyes; taking advantage of the relaxation of curfew people are running away); and (2) “Collective funeral of 13 children, three women and one man offered. They were killed by morter (sic) shell. 3 other (sic) also killed, 25 injured children and women in clinic of Dr Prakash in critical (sic) no doctr (sic) and medicine available. They all belonging to Shahdara main Mingora city.”

I got a call on Wednesday evening informing me that in the Bagh area of central Mingora there was no doctor available, all having left, except for Dr Gian Prakash – as you can guess by his name, a Hindu. Pakistan we say was created in the name of Islam. And this is what under the general emblem of Islam we are doing to this country and its citizens. Shouldn’t we dedicate what remains of Pakistan – our Bengali brothers and sisters having gone their own way – to our common humanity?

Who at this juncture is in the forefront of serving American interests? None more so than Their Holinesses Maulana Sufi Muhammad and such Taliban stalwarts as Muslim Khan and Izzat Khan whose wild rhetoric and strange interpretations of Islam helped create the tipping point for the army to overcome its inhibitions and plunge into the Malakand operation. They have proved America’s best friends. Gen Petraeus should pin medals on their breasts.

There is no room for half-measures now. Matters must be taken to their logical conclusion. Only if the army acquires the upper hand – and this is not going to be easy-will space be created for genuine negotiations. At the same time we have to tell the Americans that Pakistan deserves better than the pittance in the Kerry-Lugar bill. But for this we need leadership which Zardari, alas, and the knights of his roundtable are in no position to provide. Therein lies our predicament.


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