The United States of America, long used to manipulating Pakistan, is now engaged in a twin task: nudging the country’s army to fight the Taliban and, simultaneously, hoping that dollops of fresh aid would arrest the radicalisation of the Pakistani mind. Islamabad’s participation, even if half-hearted, in President George W. Bush’s incongruously-named ‘war on terror’ in helping deal with the Afghan Taliban, has fostered a Pakistani Taliban, which is now marching across the country.
The Barack Obama administration, in an honest effort to review Bush policies towards Afghanistan-Pakistan, or Af-Pak as they term it, has decided that the era of the near-free lunch is over. There will now be “benchmarks” for the receipt of US aid to Pakistan.
Bush, too, had some benchmarks: in the post-9/11 world, Pakistan had to hand over top al- Qaeda operatives to the US in return, even as General Pervez Musharraf and his military continued to fund jihadi assets in Afghanistan and those reserved for use against India.
The Americans loved the Musharraf one-stop shop — here was a man wearing both the khaki uniform and the political cloak — and spoke of Pakistan as a moderate Islamic State. And he could deliver, in a manner of speaking.
As al-Qaeda operatives were transferred to Guantanamo Bay and other secret prisons, the tide of anti-Americanism in the country mounted by the day. The odd speech by Musharraf did nothing to convince the Pakistani people that they were not fighting an American war.
Aside from the cosmetics, a hydra-headed extremist monster was in the making in Waziristan and Bajaur, in Swat and in the southern Punjab. That monster is now confident that it can consume the Pakistani State, or alter it according to the new design.
On Wednesday, Obama will meet Presidents Asif Zardari and Hamid Karzai, when the importance of immediate action in tackling the Taliban will be stressed.
Ahead of this meeting, the Americans have adopted — if I may say — the Indian style of diplomacy. From Obama downwards, there has been daily, blunt and incremental criticism of Pakistan — from being a ‘mortal threat’ to the ISI being mixed up with the jihadis.
So, will criticism get Pakistan to deliver? I think not. It will probably have the reverse effect.
How can the US and Pakistan work together when Washington blames the ISI for flirting with extremists? Again, this is a near-impossible task unless the Americans are able to get Pakistan to dismantle the ISI limb by limb and begin working with a new (civilian?) intelligence agency.
These are two countries with a long history of cooperation in the Cold War, as Pakistanis will tell you. (What they won’t tell you is that if their military was less adventurist and less important, India wouldn’t have been such a bugbear and, yes, Pakistan could have said no to the US).
Try as it might, the US and the rest of the West can’t graft on to Pakistan a vision for the country. Neither can it para-drop leaders (like the attempt in Afghanistan), who would be able to take on the jihadis on the streets and in villages.
President Obama means well; he wants to help Pakistan. But, his policy will work only when Pakistan begins to help itself. A moderate, stable and plural Pakistan is in everyone’s interests, including India’s.
But there’s no magic wand to clear away the debris of non-functional political and governing mechanisms in Pakistan. Even President Obama, with all his power — hard and soft — can’t turn Pakistan into a functional and responsible nation.
Only Pakistan and the Pakistanis can do it. And it will take time.
For this to happen, there must be fundamental changes in the patron-client relationship that has been the hallmark of the 60-plus years the US has been dealing with Pakistan.
Pakistan’s dependence on the US has also made the State brittle. The false notion of power that went to the heads of Pakistani generals after the halal 1989-1999 jihad against the Soviet army in Afghanistan, fought according to American designs, led to the disastrous policy of propping up the Taliban regime (1996-2001) in Afghanistan.
Today, the war is for Pakistan. To save the State and its people from living under the black-turbaned Taliban, who have come down to the plains of the Punjab from the mountains of the north-west frontier.
The Taliban vision is clear: a harsh version of Islam that controls every aspect of an individual’s personal life, supervised by the Amir-ul-Momineen, or the Leader of the Faithful.
The vision of the rest of Pakistan: the political parties, the army, and the ‘moderate’ fundamentalists , is less clear. Jinnah’s Pakistan and a Talibanised Pakistan have little in common.
In a country where literacy hovers around 60 per cent, where there is little hope for justice, education and good governance, the Taliban vision is appealing. It’s the off-with-the-head, or lash-to-control type of governance.
If America is to help in Pakistan, then America must remake itself and its policies. More of the same is a sure recipe for failure.