Simon Tisdall Mischaracterizes US-Pakistan Relations

Simon TisdallSimon Tisdall is an intelligent journalist, so I was a bit surprised to read his analysis of the diplomatic cables made public by Wikileaks — an analysis that involves a rather simplistic misunderstanding of US-Pakistan relations for such a sophisticated observer.

According to Tisdall, US policy towards Pakistan is reminiscent of Imperial Britain during the Raj. Simon Tisdall should know better. Where the British exploited ethnic differences to maintain control over the population, the US has championed minority rights and supported democratic reforms. Where the British siphoned capital out of South Asia, the US has been investing heavily in the region. Most tellingly, the Obama administration has been vocally supportive of the democratically elected government – an obvious about-face from previous policies of supporting military dictatorships and a preference for a false sense of stability over democratic rule.

More surprising, however, is the way Tisdall accuses the US of imperial intentions while completely ignoring the actual facts present in the diplomatic cables. For example, Tisdall writes,

The US hand can be seen at work in Pakistan’s complex politics, with the standing and competence of President Asif Ali Zardari seemingly constantly under harsh review. At one point, the military chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, reportedly consults the US ambassador about the possibility of a coup, designed in part to stop the advance of the opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif.

Tisdall conveniently fails to mention that the US has consistently opposed military intervention in the Pakistani government. That’s not to say all other nations have been quite so supportive of the fledgling democracy. The Wikileaks cables also revealed that, in addition to asking for military attacks on Iran, Saudi Arabia was secretly promoting a coup d’etat in Pakistan and had made a sideline deal with Nawaz Sharif, the leader of opposition party Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), a fact reported by Tisdall’s own newspaper, The Guardian.

Even Tisdall’s feigned shock at American Special Forces “being used to help hunt down Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in the tribal areas and co-ordinate drone attacks” is overblown. After all, the Wikileaks cables do discuss special forces and drone attacks in Pakistan, but they also discuss coordination with the Pakistani government and military. Simon Tisdall may have only recently learned that Pakistan is under attack by Taliban and al-Qaida forces, but the rest of the world has been well aware that the US and Pakistan were cooperating to defeat these terrorists for years.

According to Tisdall, “It is a measure of the Pakistani state’s weakness that the Americans apparently have such scope and leeway to influence and direct its affairs.” This statement is farcical, and not the least ironic coming from an Englishman who lived under the Blair regime for the past several years.

Suffice it to say, the US also has great scope and leeway to influence and direct Chinese affairs – and vice versa – where those affairs overlap. And no one in his right mind would suggest that either the US or China is weak. The truth is that the US and Pakistan, for better or for worse, are connected by mutual goals of security. That’s not a sign of weakness, it’s simply reality. American investment in Pakistan has transitioned from what could reasonably be considered a bribe (cash payments to Pervez Musharraf) to long-term investment in civilian infrastructure and capacity building.

That’s not a sign of imperial power, it’s a sign of strategic partnership.

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