Sunday, May 1, 2011

Will Pakistan erupt like Egypt?

WASHINGTON: Think of Pakistan for a moment as the equivalent of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. Both countries have strong militaries and weak civilian governments. Both are nominally America’s partners in the war against al-Qaeda, but both chafe at US pressure. In each nation, the street is buzzing with talk of the nation’s shame and humiliation under American hegemony.

In Egypt, this pressure cooker led to a revolution whose loudest slogan was “dignity.” The same upheaval could spread to Pakistan, and given the strength of Islamic extremism there, it would have devastating consequences. Meanwhile, the relationship between Islamabad and Washington becomes more poisonous by the week.

What’s behind this dysfunctional relationship, and what, if anything, can be done to repair it? Is there a way to encourage greater Pakistani independence and confidence without rupturing ties with the US?

International affairs are sometimes more like a playground fight than a gathering of diplomats in striped pants. Countries feel “disrespected” in the same way as kids on urban streets; they worry about “losing face,” they sometimes place national honor before pragmatic interests.

They talk past each other, as was the case for years between Mubarak and a string of US presidents. And then things blow up, and people wonder why it happened.

Here are four recent snapshots of the miscommunication that is the US-Pakistan relationship. Each suspects the other of bad faith, as these examples show, but the larger picture is one of persistent misunderstanding. Consider:

— Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, went to Washington last month to see CIA Director Leon Panetta and patch up a feud over the arrest of CIA contractor Raymond Davis and US drone attacks. Pasha lost face at home by coming to Washington, but the meeting seemed to go well. The day he left, the US launched a big drone attack in North Waziristan that a Pakistani intelligence official described as an “FU.”

— Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, traveled to Pakistan two weeks ago to try his hand at mending fences. On the way, he stopped in Afghanistan and got a hair-raising briefing about ISI connections with the Haqqani network—a Taliban faction that is America’s main adversary in eastern Afghanistan. During two news conferences, Mullen unloaded on the Pakistanis. The Pakistanis were miffed at being chastised in public.

— Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the Pakistani army chief of staff, met last year with Richard Holbrooke, the late special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kiyani was carrying an underlined copy of Bob Woodward’s book “Obama’s Wars,” whose revelations included some sharp criticism of Pakistan by top US officials. “Mr. Ambassador, can you tell me how this happened?” demanded Kiyani.

— And then there are the drone attacks: In its frustration with Pakistan, the administration last year sharply increased its Predator strikes over North Waziristan. But a Pakistani military official says that in the 118 drone attacks they counted last year, only one al-Qaeda “high-value target” was killed. Meanwhile, the Pakistani public seethed at what it saw as a violation of sovereignty.

When you ask administration officials about the US-Pakistan relationship, people just shake their heads in exasperation. They see a country beginning to crumble at the seams.

Maybe Pakistan needs a popular revolution, like Egypt’s, where people demand a stronger role in determining their future. But it’s hard to see this working out to the advantage of anyone at this point, except perhaps Osama bin Laden. And it might put Pakistan’s nuclear weapons up for grabs.

One way to bolster Pakistani sovereignty, short of such an uprising, would be for Pakistan to take a stronger role in ending a Taliban insurgency that is driving Washington and Islamabad nuts. A Pakistani intelligence official outlined to me a “framework for negotiations.” The Pakistanis would demand of Taliban groups with which they have contact—and yes, that includes the Haqqani network—that they meet US requirements for a deal by rejecting al-Qaeda, halting fighting and accepting the Afghan constitution.

For Taliban groups that refuse this peace framework, says the Pakistani intelligence official, there will be “military therapy.”

There’s no way of knowing if the Pakistanis could deliver. But by putting them to the test—and granting their role in the region’s future—the US might at least speak to the national yearning for dignity and independence. This relationship doesn’t need a divorce but maybe a little separation—to break a potentially ruinous cycle of mutual disrespect. The Washington Post Writers Group. By David Ignatius

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