August 25, 2010

Rewriting Pakistan's Failed Message

A wider disaster has been averted in Pakistan, for now. With humanitarian aid to over 17 million flood victims trickling rather than pouring in from the international community, Pakistani leaders issued a joint appeal with US, EU, and UN officials to save their country. Donations spiked from 230$ million to 350$, past the requested $460 million and beyond a reported $800 million.

But it’s still not going to be enough.

For $460 million, about eight million flood victims would receive food and shelter over the next four months; the billions in physical damage will be dwarfed by long-term economics of 17 million people’s disrupted lives. Pakistan’s floods were a huge shock for a state to absorb, one that won’t threaten nuclear weapons or an Islamic coup, but could distract Pakistan enough to let America sink in Afghanistan. That the TTP is exploiting the flood through charity or the military’s distraction, a secondary concern, feeds into this endgame.

The initial lack of donors spawned a controversy whose underlying tone questioned why America and the West would let Pakistan wash away. A slowly rising death toll, around 1,500, and donor fatigue wasn’t so much the explanation as cutting off one’s nose to spite the face. Western donors and populaces conditioned to Islamabad’s image of corruption and extremism locked up before the press jump-started the machine again.

US officials already understand that Pakistan as a whole functions as a dam to the war in Afghanistan, and that all would be lost if it broke. But with the US and NATO publics opposing the war in increasing numbers and repeatedly warned of Pakistan’s untrustworthiness, Western officials inevitably fell victim to their own propaganda. While US officials such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempt to uplift Pakistani opinions, the message to the US people remains pessimistic and sometimes overtly hostile towards America’s fragile but pivotal ally.

Nick Clegg, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister, called the international response "absolutely pitiful” - after Prime Minister David Cameron started a row with Pakistan while in India. Some suspect Cameron had been speaking for Obama, who rarely comments on Pakistani policy.

Thus public support initially didn’t exist to deliver US promises, at a time when Pakistan requires more than the minimum assistance too. US envoy Richard Holbrooke warned that billions will be needed to restore peoples’ lives and billions more to rebuild their society. But this level of assistance can’t simply be fulfilled. Overwhelming, not ordinary, responses turn the tide during momentous events. America needed to immediately change the narrative, mobilize the world, and produce an excess of donations to stabilize Pakistan. Not just enough to get by.

The opportunity is not yet lost with another two weeks of rain predicted, but helping Pakistan through its natural disaster so that it can assist in America’s man-made disaster requires long-term policy changes. The first is to balance Washington’s message towards the US people. US officials and the media believe that they can speak with two tongues, one to assure Pakistanis of US support and another to assure Americans that Pakistan is being closely monitored.

This policy has depressed the image of Pakistanis in the US public.

Clinton and other officials did begin to alter the US message in the moments before the flood and during the disaster. She promised in one of her many videos, "I want the people of Pakistan to know: The United States will be with you through this crisis. We will be with you as you replant your fields and repair your roads. And we will be with you as you meet the long-term challenge to build a stronger nation and a better future for your families."

But by then it was too late. Major media like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, having slanted against Pakistan for years, had to flip an immediate switch, generating a lesser reaction. Going forward the US media needs to eliminate the artificial furor of nuclear weapons and strike fear into Americans in order to eliminate their distrust of Pakistanis. Just because a growing number of Americans wish to pull the plug on Afghanistan, they still don’t want to see what work has been done go to waste.

America would be swept into the trenches of military history if not for Islamabad, who only funded the Taliban after America’s decision to encourage Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan.

With a softer message to the US people, US officials must launch a new campaign at the national and international level to sustain Pakistan’s long-term recovery. This won’t be easy given that many countries will question why they must now save America’s strategic interests from what many consider to be poor planning.

The ISI’s allegiance is a real concern, but leads to the pivotal reform desperately needed in US foreign policy. Humanitarian aid has its limits and US officials will find they cannot equalize misdeeds completely, even when spearheading disaster relief efforts. Much of the US’s media focus has centered on how to lead the ground reaction, aware that the US military best coordinates this level of disaster relief, with the bonus of positively exposing locals directly to US troops. Pakistani approval did rise after US assistance during the 2005 earthquake.

US envoy Richard Holbrooke recently told PBS’s Charlie Rose that the strategy is to help them over and over, to reinforce the idea that America means well.

Yet military, economic, and disaster aid doesn’t achieve maximum results when used to continue unpopular policy. Pakistan’s press laments that David Petraeus is bent on delaying America’s exit from the region, while America continues to act as if Kashmir doesn’t exist. Humanitarian aid must be accompanied by policy reform, not used as a disguise for nefarious acts. Pakistanis, far too old in the game to be fooled, advocate US disengagement from the region, viewing it as the source of inflammation.

Unrealistic as it sounds, the only means of permanently improving Pakistani relations is to pursue disengagement from Afghanistan. US messages would resonate if Pakistanis actually believed America was looking for a stable exit and not seeking to militarily force the Taliban into submission, which many doubt is possible. Thus they doubt Obama intends to leave any time soon. Settling the Kashmir dispute also needs to be done sooner than later, as the conflict is unsustainable.

Reforming policy removes the carrot and stick policy Washington uses to guide Islamabad - “we help you, now help with militants” - and turns the relationship into a genuine partnership. Helping Pakistanis during times of hardship must fit into a grander strategy of limiting US meddling in Pakistani affairs, then Pakistani minds would turn for real.

And Americans with them.

1 comment:

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