A senior administration official explains to AlterNet why the Pakistan mission has broadened.
Listening to the president’s speech last night, you may have come away thinking that the U.S. mission in South Asia was largely about depriving al Qaeda its bases of operation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future,” said President Barack Obama.
This is the mission Congress authorized President George W. Bush to pursue in 2001.
Yet if you listened to the subtext of the speech, you might find that the mission has changed. In fact, you might say that the mission in Afghanistan is as much about creating stability in Pakistan — a nuclear power that NBC’s Andrea Mitchell yesterday referred to as a nearly failed state — as it is about Afghanistan. Last night, a senior administration official confirmed to AlterNet that the U.S. mission to Pakistan has broadened.
From the president’s speech:
In the past, we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly. Those days are over. Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interest, mutual respect, and mutual trust. We will strengthen Pakistan’s capacity to target those groups that threaten our countries, and have made it clear that we cannot tolerate a safe haven for terrorists whose location is known and whose intentions are clear. America is also providing substantial resources to support Pakistan’s democracy and development. We are the largest international supporter for those Pakistanis displaced by the fighting. And going forward, the Pakistan people must know America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan’s security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people can be unleashed.
In truth, the largest threat to the U.S. from Pakistan is not al Qaeda, or even, as the president suggested, the “cancer” of extremism spilling over the Pakistan border from Afghanistan. The real threat is Pakistan’s homegrown extremists, who have always been there, and with the shakiness of Pakistan’s democracy, have been emboldened. Bomb attacks on civilians by Pakistani Taliban and its allies in cities across Pakistan reached a fever pitch in October and early November. Yet the attacks appear to have been fueled, in part, by U.S. military policy in the region.
Drone attacks on villages in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Provinces — attacks that appear to be part of a covert U.S. program — have enraged local Pashtun leaders. After a bomb attack in a Peshawar bazaar killed more than 100 on October 28, a Pashtun-language banner was unfurled that condemned the purchase of a local luxury hotel by the U.S. for use as a consulate by equating the U.S. government with the mercenary force that provides security for U.S. aid projects in the region. “Handing the Pearl Continental to Blackwater is a grave injustice,” the banner read, according to Assam Ahmed of the Christian Science Monitor. This leads to the trickiness of the U.S. relationship with Pakistan.
For many years, the U.S. has been held in low esteem by the Pakistani people. During the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the U.S. armed Pakistan to the teeth, and helped solidify the position of the despotic dictator, Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. Then, once the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the U.S. abandoned Pakistan, its democracy in tatters.
As the U.S. has pressed the Pakistani military to pursue extremists within its borders, the blowback has fallen on the Pakistani people, as the Taliban and its allies unleashed terror on civilian populations. The Obama administration appears to be hoping to balance the cost to the Pakistani people for the war on extremists with a broader mission that includes greater economic and development assistance to Pakistan, by the U.S. and the international community.
“What we realized,” a senior administration official told AlterNet, “is that while narrow efforts to address some of the immediate security threats are critical, if we really want to achieve our overall goal, we need … to help Pakistan overcome a whole series of economic and security challenges that undermine its stability. You know, it’s overall Pakistani stability that’s in our interest.”
Another senior official cited the recent visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Pakistan as part of that broadened mission. During her visit, Clinton conducted town-hall meetings in Lahore and Islamabad, where she got an earful about the apparent U.S. role in Pakistani counter-insurgency operations. Clinton also forcefully and publicly condemned the attack on the Peshawar bazaar, which occurred during her stay in Pakistan.
Despite the skepticism Clinton faced, the official said, her visit led to a “significant uptick” in positive “perceptions of America.” In addition to such public diplomacy, said the official, “we’re working on a new assistance strategy to address Pakistan’s very significant needs in terms of energy, water and economic reform to help the Pakistani people.” The combined approach of “people-to-people” outreach, development aid should lead to “decreasing the appeal of extremists if we are able to help the Pakistani government and people with some of their major needs,” the official said.
While it may be tempting to deride the new policy as “mission creep,” it’s hard to see how the U.S. mission in Pakistan and Afghanistan could have remained static, as conditions on the ground have not, and have deteriorated largely due to the neglect of the region by the Bush administration.
The development and public diplomacy aspect of the U.S. approach to Pakistan seems wise. I remain deeply concerned, however, about unforeseen outcomes in the war against Pakistani extremists.
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