The rioting in Afghanistan resulting from the inadvertent incineration of several copies of the Quran at a U.S. military library has hammered the home the need for cultural understanding in the context of Afghanistan. The forces fanning the flames of popular outrage (i.e., the Taliban) clearly have their own anti-American agenda, but maybe the initial spark could have been avoided had U.S. military personnel been better informed.
In a relationship as complicated and as fraught as that of neighboring Pakistan and the U.S., strategic communication is a major challenge. At Heritage on Tuesday, author James Farwell (The Pakistan Cauldron: Conspiracy, Assassination and Instability) and Heritage research fellow Lisa Curtis provided valuable insights into Pakistan’s internal dynamics and the strained dynamics of the U.S.–Pakistan relationship.
It is a relationship that stretches back to the Cold War, and it was never an easy one. Today, the levels of distrust between the two countries are riding high—the U.S. for its part suspecting Pakistan of two-facedness in the fights against militant Islam and Pakistan seeing the U.S. as an unreliable fair-weather friend.
Just think of the issues that confounded the U.S.–Pakistan relationship in 2011, an annus horribilis in this alliance: First, year got off to a bad start with the killing of two Pakistanis by CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who was apparently being followed and harassed by the gun-wielding Pakistani “robbers.”
Next, the U.S. Special Forces operation that took out Osama bin Laden had an enormous impact in Pakistan, as it put the Pakistani military and security services in a conundrum: either they knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts and deceived the U.S. deliberately, or they did not know and were shown up as humiliatingly incompetent. According to Farwell, this incident is still reverberating in Pakistan’s current constitutional crisis. And it certainly reverberates here in Washington, where distrust of Pakistan as an ally is at an all-time high.
And finally, there was the attack by NATO forces on a Pakistani army post along the border with Afghanistan that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
Is there a communications strategy that can overcome these problems? “Not likely” is the answer from Farwell, and we might as well get used to that fact. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007 removed one of Pakistan’s notable pro-Western leaders. Though also friendly to the U.S., her rival, General Pervez Musharraf, lost popular support late in his tenure because of his efforts to stifle democracy.
According to Farwell, the depth of the mutual distrust and anti-Americanism in Pakistan is such that Pakistanis look on their relations with the U.S. in purely transactional terms. The Obama Administration came into office believing that this could be changed by a policy of greater engagement and foreign aid. However, as noted by Curtis, at this point in time, Pakistanis should take ownership of their country’s future and focus on building a democratic political process and a viable economy. Only that can change the U.S.–Pakistan equation in the long term.