Baitullah’s Death Doesn’t Change Pakistan’s Perception of the US

21Sep09

images-2 Richard Holbrooke was in Pakistan for the second time this month, and while he was on his way to Destination Kabul for the presidential elections, the visit was by no means a mere pit stop. The United States Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan has been the topic of a great deal of discussion. Because of the series of events that occurred during and preceding the trip, and his actions and words while here, Pakistanis are seeing it as one of his most significant visits.

For one, this is the first time Holbrooke was here after Pakistan’s Public Enemy No. 1, Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a US drone missile strike early this month. The repercussions of the conquest are manifold.

The Pakistan military successfully launched an offensive against militants in Swat but it did not help that the leadership was still at large. Holbrooke had lauded the army’s performance in securing parts of Swat on his previous visit, but at the same time cautioned that with top leaders like Maulana Fazlullah still at large ‘there was still a long way to go.’ It was then that he added, “I think Baitullah Mehsud is one of the most dangerous and odious people in the entire region, and the United States paid insufficient attention to him until very recently.”

In trying to convince the people that the Americans were working with Pakistan rather than for themselves through Pakistan, the admission was very helpful.

The elimination of Mehsud sparked off a debate in Pakistani television news shows of how drone attacks should be viewed. Previously condemned by the government for being a violation of the state’s sovereignty and by the people on account of collateral damage, the controversial strikes had to be reevaluated. In a heated debate on DawnNews, one of President Asif Ali Zardari’s Advisors, Farahnaz Ispahani stated, “If a drone strike has killed Baitullah Mehsud, then I cannot condemn it.”

But Blogger Sana Saleem argued that ‘the recent killing of Baitullah Mehsud by a US-led drone attack does not seem to make an impact in favour of the drone policy.’ She cites a survey commissioned by AlJazeera and conducted by Gallup Pakistan, which estimates an astounding 59 percent of the population sees the United States as the greatest threat to Pakistan. Much of the unpopularity is put down to the drone attacks. By contrast, only 11 percent identified the Taliban who are responsible for scores of deaths by suicide bombings, and 18 percent viewed India, the projected archenemy as the biggest danger to national security.

As Holbrooke arrived on the heels of the survey, his visit was scrutinized with the figures in mind. Former ambassador, Zafar Hilaly was of the opinion that Pakistani public opinion is mercurial and can fluctuate quite easily. He also said, “I think these polls are in some ways mischievous, frankly. States should not rely on these surveys to take decisions.”

While that may be so, Sana Saleem suggested, “[…] the double game being played by the Pakistani’s authorities is leading to confused [public] opinion.”

The Pakistan government has been reported to have a secret deal on missile strikes by drones, which are rumoured to be based within the country. A private news channel quoted the former Chief of Army Staff, retired General Mirza Aslam Beg as saying that the United States is operating unmanned Predator drones from Tarbela in Pakistan. Yet, the elected leaders and the military continue to condemn the attack.

When Holbrooke announced that as this trip was not fraught with Afghanistan-Pakistan relations and terror talk, he could give more time to issues that affect ordinary Pakistanis such as the energy crisis, Zafar Nawaz Jaspal, an Islamabad based security analyst, implied that it suggested self-interest. He said, “The US has to counter Iran’s influence created by the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.” The world’s only superpower is frequently accused of being self-serving.

The initial agreement of the $7.5 billion Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, also known as the Peace Pipeline, was signed in Tehran in May between the Iranian and Pakistani presidents.

Zafar Hilaly retorted, “Yes, they are here for selfish reasons. What gets me is that if you have the strongest nation on this planet at the moment siding with you, helping you, financing you, equipping you, training you, why say no?”

Pakistan’s energy crisis is a quagmire into which the Americans should think many times before they take the plunge. Circular debt of billions of rupees, electricity loss, power theft, weak infrastructure and decades of corruption are just some of the problems in the energy sector that have led to power riots since last year. Last month at the outset of the monsoon season, a single rainstorm in Karachi led to a power breakdown for as long as five consecutive days in some parts of the city. The power riots have not been limited to the financial capital. With industries hard hit, the textile-concentrated province of Punjab has seen tires burned, shots fired and electric company offices attacked.

Even if the United States does try to help resolve the problem by pumping in much-needed funds, there are no guarantees that the efforts will bear fruit. Hilaly dismissed it as a quick fix solution. “The US had once talked about a Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan gas pipeline. Now that is a long-term solution,” he proposed.

As for hearts and minds, when I posed the question on Twitter as to whether an American attempt to ‘solve’ Pakistan’s energy crisis would turn public opinion, the answer can be summed up with these tweets by journalist, Saba Imtiaz: “It will take decades – or a miracle – to change Pakistan’s perception of the US. Given Pakistan’s track record of how these power projects never take off…”

That would give people another reason to point an accusing finger at the Americans for their misfortunes.

To quote Zafar Hilaly, “If it does not rain, they are held responsible. You fall ill; it is all due to America. I mean it is really mind-boggling.”

A version of this post was first published on 21st September 2009 by The Huffington Post

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