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Pakistani floods: A win-win for the US?

By M K Bhadrakumar
September 02, 2010 19:07 IST
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M K Bhadrakumar says helping Pakistan with flood relief may help America win some hearts and minds in that country.

The flood is an archetypal symbol. The catastrophic floods in Pakistan bestirred sunken myths of the Old Testament in the American psyche.

A leading American columnist credited with the unique capacity to fathom the security-establishment thinking in Washington and Islamabad alike, wrote on the weekend that the US relief for Pakistan would help get America past its "recent traumas about Islamophobia".

Attributing to Islamophobia the qualities of "original sin" is indeed thought-provoking. Noah's mission seems to have been so simple.

The image of the US in the Muslim world remains extremely poor. What matters to the Muslim psyche is that over 1.3 million innocent Iraqi civilians perished as a result of the US invasion in 2003 and that the US continues to be deeply mired in the Middle Eastern conflicts -- from the Levant to the Central Asian steppes -- and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Nineteen US troops were killed in action in eastern and southern Afghanistan over the past 100 hours. Fifty-four US service members died in Afghanistan in the month of August alone. And they seem to be dying in vain.

When 19 brave US servicemen laid down their lives, the Washington establishment and the American media treated it as a parenthesis while their obsessive concern was to pull down Afghan President Hamid Karzai from power.

No wonder, Karzai hit back. He told the visiting western dignitary, German Parliament speaker Norbert Lammert, that the US's war strategy in Afghanistan over the past nine years has been "ineffective apart from causing civilian casualties."

If there is a grain of truth in what Karzai alleged, it not hard to find why 59 percent of people in Pakistan regard the US as an enemy country -- which was the July 29 finding of the reputed Pew Research Centre poll.

Indeed, there is scope to redeem the US's image among the Pakistanis. Pew also said over 60 percent of Pakistanis want their country to have good relations with the US. The issue is how to go about it so long as America's foreign wars continue.

The American columnist came to the conclusion that "The Pakistan flooding, which has displaced an estimated 20 million people, is one of those natural disasters that can break through those usual political barriers and resentments."

He argued: "The national security arguments for coming to Pakistan's rescue are strong, but there's a larger point: Helping desperate Pakistanis in this catastrophe will be good for the American soul… We all know in our personal lives the paradoxical truth about charity -- that it helps the giver as much as the receiver. This would be especially true now, with a national mobilisation to aid Pakistan."

But politics is hard-ball -- and not about Christian salvation. Thus, John Kerry, the chairman of the US senate foreign relations committee, writing in the Boston Globe on the same day was quite focused: "Pakistan has made enormous strides in combating extremism and terrorism -- at great sacrifice by its soldiers, police and citizens. But its ability to keep at the fight requires an effective response to this crisis."

The Commandant of the US Marine Corps General James Conway was blunt at a Pentagon briefing last Tuesday: "[Pakistani army chief] General [Pervez] Kayani cautioned me that the involvement of his army in the flood relief will for a while detract from their efforts to secure the Pakistani frontier."

Simply put, the Barack Obama administration has reason to be worried that unless Pakistani military didn't get on with its part of the war effort in Afghanistan, there will be dire consequences.

True, unless the Pakistani military returned to the war, there is nothing the US can do. The less said the better about any intensified operations in Kandahar. Without a simultaneous push by the Pakistani military from their side of the border, there is little General David Petraeus can do, which explains why the Afghan war is fast degenerating into a brutish expedition by the US special forces like in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the hope is that while the high-profile aid relief role may or may not burnish the US image among the Pakistani people and salvage or not the Christian conscience, it may just about induce General Kayani to be more cooperative.

But how long can a war be kept in suspense? There is no more any political fig-leaf to cover the stark, ugly nakedness of the war. The memories of the conference in January in London, the Loya Jirga held in June in Kabul and the foreign-ministers' conference in Kabul in July have all receded as distant memories.

So indeed the consensus opinion to have an accelerated process of 'reintegration' of the reconcilable Taliban fighters alongside a robust Afghanisation of the war and to strengthen the Afghan government led by Karzai.

These were brilliant ideas conceived by the US' AfPak officials in the first instance while a skeptical international community largely went along with them at the Lancaster House in London.

What happened since then is, therefore, simply bizarre. In sum, the US undercut its own road map.

According to last week's US media leaks, the 'capture' of Mullah Baradar (Taliban's No. 2) in Karachi in January was in actuality a joint US-Pakistani intelligence operation with the sole objective of depriving Karzai of his main interlocutor within the Taliban leadership and to drive home the message that the Afghan leader cannot deal with his fellow-countrymen directly.

So much for the reconciliation and Afghanisation strategies that the US' AfPak officials were crowing about a few months ago.

And all this since the Karzai-Baradar secret parleys probably reached a criticality that might have facilitated Taliban participation in the upcoming Loya Jirga in April -- which, undoubtedly, could have been a defining moment.

The US' AfPak officials have a bee in their bonnet. They don't seem to want a strong Afghan leader in Kabul with an independent power base and they are back to where they are best at – smear campaigns.

They are determined to tear apart Karzai's web of alliances with the erstwhile Northern Alliance groups by instigating them that the Afghan president is 'appeasing' the Taliban.

A leading newspaper from San Francisco speculated whether the Afghan leader could be practicing sodomy in the presidential palace in Kabul. Yes, this happened on the same weekend in which 14 American servicemen were cut down in the prime of their youth in Karzai's country.

The heart of the matter is that the US is nervous that a newly-elected parliament in Kabul following the September 8 election may work in harmony with Karzai, which in turn could lead to a genuine Afghanisation of the war and out of that a consensus regarding reconciliation can emerge which they possibly can't micromanage.

The game plan is to keep up the pressure on Karzai even as the mother of all questions concerning the future of the US military presence is yet to be addressed.

The Afghans oppose permanent U.S. military presence, while the Pentagon is hell-bent on getting a status of forces agreement with the powers that be in Kabul so as to retain long-term access. Will Karzai play ball? This seems to be an intractable question.

Kerry wrote, "If we fail to reverse the tide of public opinion [in Pakistan], no amount of aid will succeed." True, but not in the way Kerry probably meant.

The pervasive feeling among Afghans and Pakistanis is that US will never stop interfering.  And they deeply resent the prospect of long-term foreign occupation. A $150 million relief package for the Pakistani floods alone cannot achieve much to wash away that reservoir of resentment.

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M K Bhadrakumar