How to read Pakistan

Last Updated: Mon, Oct 01, 2012 07:41 hrs

The United States should make a greater effort to understand Pakistan, its compulsions and stop looking at it through the Afghanistan prism.

The rare plea comes not from a Pakistani official but from a US ambassador to the country, Cameron Munter, who resigned from his position this summer amid controversy. It is a charitable and a minority view, one that is rarely heard in Washington. He said the US should also help Pakistan open up to India.

Making his first public appearance last week to explain the events of 2011, the annus horribilis in US-Pakistan relations, the former ambassador explained the reasons for the mistrust, anger and disappointment - of Pakistan.

Munter, a soft-spoken former professor, was at odds with Washington on almost all the major issues of dispute with Pakistan, most critically on the use of drones. But even by his own accounting, the good faith efforts by the US to break from the past and craft a more substantive relationship beyond the use-and-discard patterns of the past, ended up in failure.

Last year, Pakistan and the US barreled down a ravine and hit rock bottom. It began with the killing of Salman Taseer and US disappointment with Pakistani government's cowardly posture, the Raymond Davis affair, the Osama bin Laden raid and it ended with the Salala incident when US forces accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers resulting in Islamabad blocking of NATO routes to Afghanistan.

Each incident reduced American confidence and appetite for their favourite frontline state and hardened Washington's stance. Pakistanis were angry and hurt but helpless. They retaliated by putting more distance between themselves and their American friends.

What Pakistan's long sulk did was to essentially give the CIA more control over Pakistan policy. It is said that Washington has many policies on Pakistan pushed by a variety of players including the State Department, the White House, the Defence Department and the CIA. In Pakistan, the civilian government, the military-ISI combine, sundry political parties and jihadists have their own interplay and a lot is lost in translation. Finesse is missing on both sides.

Munter said that US policies alienated the very forces in Pakistan - including Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani - who wanted better relations. What he failed to take into account was that Kayani's vision outlined in a document he gave to President Barack Obama was all oldspeak, anti-India and about exercising control in Afghanistan.

No surprise that some in Washington suspected Munter had gone "native" and developed a case of "clientitis" - a peculiar condition when ambassadors become advocates of the host country instead of their own. Munter's friends say he was "undermined" by his own administration and unable to execute his job. Washington reportedly had cut him out of the loop on targeting decisions for drone strikes, something on which he wanted to have a say as ambassador to manage the fallout.

He had also argued for a US apology for the killing of Pakistani soldiers, a recommendation that landed like a thud in Washington where the Pentagon was fuming over the repeated killings of US soldiers by ISI-linked jihadists. The White House was least interested in an apology in an election year to a country many Americans considered hostile to US interests.

Munter came into conflict with Ryan Crocker, a battle-hardened US ambassador to Afghanistan who had developed a more realistic view of Pakistan. Crocker had himself been ambassador to Pakistan (2004-2007) and held similarly kind views of Pakistan military and the ISI. But from Afghanistan, he saw the "foreign" hand more clearly and it was often attached to bodies inside Pakistan.

Crocker, who was pulled out of retirement in 2011 by President Barack Obama because of his expertise in the region, repaired US relations with President Hamid Karzai and attempted talks with Taliban leaders living in Pakistan. He also resigned this summer but for health reasons and returned to the US.

There are some who believe that the Crocker-Munter spats had more to do with inherent dysfunctions of US policy in Afghanistan, which careens from subduing the Taliban to trying to talk to them.

Interestingly both Munter and Crocker made their first public appearances this past week since returning to Washington, laying out what they understood as the future of the AfPak region. The contrast couldn't have been starker.

An academic by training, Munter cut his teeth as a diplomat in Eastern Europe and had no real previous experience in the wilds of South Asia. More used to revolutions of the "velvet" kind, he tried hard to understand the jihadist mindset. Some say he was outwitted by his interlocutors.

If Crocker is the quintessential hard-nosed tough guy who "liked meeting bad guys" to cut a deal, Munter is the gentleman ambassador with a kind word for everyone, even the ISI.

People "tend to overestimate both the impact and cosmic role of the ISI. It is convenient and there is some evidence that they misbehave. They are not the evil connivers they are said to be," proposed Munter. "They do dumb things. They plant articles in the media (as they did against drone strikes). We shouldn't demonise the ISI."

In his assessment, 95 percent of the Pakistanis "care deeply" about what America thinks about them and want "approval."

His breathtaking positivity may sound jarring to many but the former ambassador said that throughout 2011 the US maintained close ties with the ISI and both governments "worked responsibly behind the headlines so that chances of an attack or accident (like Salala) are minimized."

Munter stressed that the Pakistani leadership did not know about Osama bin Laden's whereabouts and was initially happy that the Americans had got him. He met Gen. Kayani and the then ISI Chief Ahmad Shuja Pasha on May 2, 2011, a day after the raid and they offered their "congratulations."

But the ensuing outcry against violation of Pakistani sovereignty forced the duo to take a hard line to show they were not in the "American pocket." They demanded that the 150 American "trainers" be withdrawn even though it meant that all the toys would also go with the boys. Kayani and Pasha lost a lot of US equipment such as night vision goggles and computers.

"Kayani was among those who had bet on us," said Munter, recalling the 2008 attempt to broaden the relationship and put long-term assistance in place through the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, which envisioned $7.5 billion in non-military aid over five years. The bill also put stringent conditions, including one that required the Pakistani military to be subordinate to the civilian government. It demanded action against terrorist havens.

"It was a deeply idealistic effort. It seems naive now but it was done in good faith." But ultimately the grand vision to restructure relations and break the dueling narratives on both sides failed because the Pakistani state didn't have the capacity to absorb the aid, according to Munter. What he failed to mention is that neither did the military demolish safe havens despite US pleas to do more.

But the thaw did result in the Pakistani military-ISI approving hundreds of visas for American diplomats and contractors, a gesture that Pakistanis later claimed was abused as the Raymond Davis affair came to light. Davis, a CIA contractor, killed two Pakistanis in Lahore in January 2011 in what he claimed was self-defense.

The year that began with the Davis affair ended with Salala attack, almost completely breaking the trust, said Munter. The Pakistani military believed it was a "punishment" rather than an accident given the enormity of the US firepower used. Pakistan closed down NATO routes in retaliation and mulled further measures to punish the US, such as leaning closer to the Chinese.

When the Chinese rebuffed Pakistan government's attempt to play the US off against China, the ball was thrown to the parliament to draw a template for future relations with Washington, according to Munter. The parliament "didn't cover itself in glory." Finally, negotiations outside the diplomatic channel managed the reopening of supply routes, the ambassador said.

"Expectations (from the relationship) now are very modest." It is better to look at the US-Pakistan relationship in the regional context and move away from the strict bilateralism of the past. "We should help Pakistan reach out to India," Munter said, adding that it would be the best thing that could happen to Pakistan.

He believes the Pakistani military has "blessed" opening up to India but it is difficult to judge whether it is merely a tactical move. "I can't judge their motives but the fact is they are doing it."

Interestingly, Munter's positive assessment of Kayani and his tactics once again is at odds with that of other US officials. (ANI)

Attn: News Editors/News Desks: The views expressed in the above article are that of Seema Sirohi, a senior journalist specialising in foreign policy based in Washington D.C.

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