Pakistan has taken several important steps forward over the past four years. From President Zardari’s willingly devolving powers that had been consolidated under past military dictators to an elected parliament completing its full tenure, there are, as Peter Bergen recently noted, many reasons to be hopeful about Pakistan’s future. But despite Pakistan’s overall positive trajectory, there remains a disturbing trend that threatens the promise of a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Pakistan – the ongoing attempts to silence Pakistan’s progressive voices.
Last week’s protests in response to the amateur internet video intended to defame the Prophet Muhammad dominated headlines about Pakistan and served as an unfortunate and misleading introduction to Islam for too many in the West. While outrage against the offensive video clip was real – just as films like The Last Temptation of Christ and works of art like “Piss Christ” inspired outrage in the US – the violence that broke out represented not the majority of devout Muslims, but the craven opportunism of radical political groups who seized on the film as a convenient tool for manufacturing rage and amplifying their political message far beyond their actual support among the people. As noted by Trudy Rubin in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer,
Violent protests against critiques of Islam have no roots in the Muslim religion. As the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia said last week, the Web video “would never harm the noble Prophet in any way, nor the religion of Islam.” He denounced the destruction of embassies and public buildings as un-Islamic.
While cynical political leaders were exploiting religion to hijack media headlines, however, a little noticed event in Washington, DC presented a much different representation of Islam – one that would be far more familiar to the billions of Muslims across the world who registered their offense through reasoned outreach and quiet prayer, and serves as a much more informative introduction to the Islamic tradition prevalent in countries like Pakistan. Over the weekend, the Smithsonian Institution hosted Sufism at the Smithsonian: Searching fro the Divine through the Arts, a two-day symposium on Sufism and Sufi-inspired arts.
Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman, spoke at the event on Saturday, explaining that,
Over the past decade, the emergence of ideological terrorism and its narrative of hate has cast a long and dark shadow on the picture of Islam as it has been practiced for centuries, as it is still practiced today. This tiny percentage has virtually hijacked the religion of Islam and distorted it as a religion of exclusivity and violence. In fact, allow me to say, that those who dominate international media discourse have strayed far from the teachings of Sufi masters who were the votaries of love, from the “maktab i ishq” or school of love; aligning themselves with an increasingly apocalyptic creed that promotes exclusion of all those who disagree with their narrow interpretation of faith.
Let there be no mistake that the essence of Islam advocates peace above all else.
Pakistani analyst Najam Sethi contends that last week’s violent protests were not a spontaneous and popular uprising, but a media event carefully orchestrated by radical political groups who seek to overshadow “the point of view of an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis who are tolerant and moderate and want to reflect such values to the global village with which they wish to trade and integrate, for whom jobs, education and upward mobility are worthy ambitions.” That point of view was eloquently stated by Ambassador Rehman on Saturday night. It’s too bad more media wasn’t there to cover it.
Video of Ambassador Rehman’s full remarks is below:
Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US Sherry Rehman spoke with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday from Islamabad. The Ambassador explained that the Pakistani government was satisfied with Secretary Clinton’s apology for the incident last November that killed 24 Pakistani troops, and that transit fees would not be increased because, for Pakistan, it was never about money – the $5,000 per truck number was a rumor in the media that took on a life of its own. Pakistan, she explained, sees granting access to the transit routes as one of many ways that they can contribute to bringing peace and stability to the region.
Wolf also asked about Dr. Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who was part of a CIA operation to identify Osama bin Laden’s location in Pakistan and was subsequently sentenced to 33 years in prison. Ambassador Rehman said that Dr. Afridi was not convicted by “kangaroo courts” and has the right of appeal in his case.
A statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton marked the beginning of a new chapter in US-Pakistan relations on Tuesday. During a phone call with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Secretary Clinton uttered the words Pakistan had been longing to hear: “We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military. We are committed to working closely with Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent this from ever happening again.” Pakistan accepted the apology, and it seems everyone finally got what they wanted. Well, almost.
The US got what it wanted – a reopening of the Ground Lines of Communication (GLOCs) into Afghanistan. Alternate routes were secured, proving that the Pakistani routes are not essential, but they are much more efficient. Reopening transit routes through Pakistan will save the US billions of dollars.
Access to the trans-Pakistan routes will also help facilitate the process of drawing down troops from Afghanistan, something desired by both US lawmakers and, presumably, the Taliban.
The Pakistani Military also gets what they wanted – namely, $1.1 billion from the Coalition Support Fund. And while the agreement does prohibit the transportation of lethal cargo, there is an exception for supplies for the Afghan military, which will help equip the Afghans to take over responsibility for their own security as NATO forces leave.
Opposing the agreement are the Taliban, the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC) – a coalition of militant groups and religious political parties, and Imran Khan who reiterated his opposition to Pakistani support for the war on terrorism and told Pakistani talk show host Hamid Mir on Tuesday night that he does not accept the apology and suggested the CIA was responsibility for sectarian killings in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s Ambassador the US, Sherry Rehman, expressed confidence that US-Pakistan cooperation will improve going forward, and Senator John Kerry issued a statement saying that “mutual issues of interest and concern should be our focus going forward despite our differences.”
Unfortunately, while civilian officials are actively working to bridge differences and get bilateral relations back on track, military officials are more withdrawn. US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta issued a short statement repeating his commitment “to improving our partnership with Pakistan and to working closely together as our two nations confront common security challenges in the region.” Though Gen. Allen welcomed the decision and paid tribute to the sacrifices of Pakistan’s military. Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff said he appreciated Gen. Allen’s apology for last November’s attack, but considered it “insufficient.” And despite the presence of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and three other service chiefs on the Defence Committee of the Cabinet that decided to reopen the GLOCs, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) – the military’s official press channel – has not issued a statement in support of the decision, leaving civilian politicians to bear the brunt of public backlash.
This is, perhaps, the worrisome part of the deal. Pakistan’s military was clearly a party to the agreement to reopen NATO supply routes, but they appear to be taking a back seat in explaining to the Pakistani people why the decision was in the country’s best interest. Such decisions are well within the purview of democratically elected civilians, but the military’s silence could undermine the authority of the civilian government if anti-democratic groups like the DPC exploit the situation to convince the people that the civilians are acting against the recommendations of the military. To prevent such a scenario, Gen. Kayani Gen. Zaheerul Islam (Director General of the ISI) should issue public statements supporting the decision of the DCC.
Last night, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s (R-Calif) amendment to cut funding for Pakistan was soundly defeated 84-335. As with Rohrabacher’s bill supporting the balkanization of Pakistan, though, it was unlikely that this proposal would go anywhere to begin with.
After Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan last year, House members contemplated a number of measures that would have cut aid to Pakistan. Two amendments proposing to cut aid to Pakistan were defeated, however, as lawmakers decided that cutting aid would be in neither country’s interests.
Still, Pakistan and its representatives in the US did not take it for granted that Rohrabacher’s amendment would meet the same fate. Pakistan’s Ambassador, Sherry Rehman, was seen working the Hill late Thursday, explaining Pakistan’s position to Members of Congress. After 8pm, the Pakistani Ambassador Tweeted that she had been working the Hill until the vote was assured.
Writing for the blog “emptywheel”, Jim White makes an astute observation:
“…the Pakistani government is not a monolith that always acts with all of its participants working together for the same outcome. Rather than supporting those within Pakistan who will advance US interests, Rohrabacher wants to punish all of Pakistan because of those who work against US interests.
Using aid as part of a “carrots and sticks” approach to Pakistan has failed in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. It’s a strategy that fails because it feeds anti-American narratives at the expense of moderate, democratic forces in civil society. US lawmakers recognize this, as was demonstrated by Sen. McCain’s acknowledgement earlier this week that “one of the gravest mistakes in recent history was the so-called Pressler Amendment” which cut off aid to Pakistan in the 1990s, resulting in the “trust deficit” that continues to plague US-Pakistan relations.
Officials from both countries will travel to Chicago this weekend to continue critical discussions around bilateral cooperation on issues of national security. The defeat of Rep. Rohrabacher’s amendment ensures that these discussions will not be burdened by the repetition of past mistakes.
QUESTION: Ambassador Rehman also said that what Pakistan is looking – not aid from the U.S., but trade, and she said that as far as textile tariffs are concerned – and also, what I’m asking you is: Is Pakistan – is U.S. focusing more to spend money more on the development in Pakistani people in order to have a better image of U.S. in Pakistan?
MS. NULAND: Well, Goyal, as you know, the Secretary has been one of the most vocal advocates of switching as much of our economic relationship with Pakistan from aid to trade. That’s been the focus of the Department’s efforts with the Pakistani Government over the last couple of years, and some of the internal reviews we’ve done are focused on that. So we are investing in the economic health and strength of the country. We are investing in energy. We’re investing in education. We are investing in democracy programs and development, so – and micro-lending and all of these kinds of things. So it’s not about improving our image. It’s about helping to strengthen a stable, peaceful, democratic Pakistan.
In her first address as Ambassador, Pakistan’s new envoy to the United States, Sherry Rehman, identified a path out of recent tensions: A new paradigm for US-Pakistan relations based on mutual respect. It seems her American counterparts were listening.
This week, a new attitude towards Pakistan has been emerging in Washington – one that is less concerned with what Pakistan can do for the US, and more concerned with how the US can better understand and appreciate Pakistan’s perspective, and how the two allies can work as partners towards shared goals.
Over the weekend, Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development, wrote a persuasive rejoinder to an article in Foreign Affairs calling for a tougher stance towards Pakistan. According to Ms. Birdsall, such a policy has been tried – and failed – before. Instead of treating aid to Pakistan as a bribe, she argues, the US needs to treat aid as an investment in strengthening Pakistan’s civil society.
In short, the purpose of U.S. civilian aid to Pakistan is to help build a better state. It is not to bribe or reward the “government” (neither the military nor the civilian leadership). Withholding military aid would likely not punish the military anyway. It would, however, reduce the resources available to the civilian government, since the evidence is that the military can get what it wants from the government’s overall available resources. And withholding civilian aid obviously would not punish the military. It would, however, take away a modest tool of America – investing to educate kids, create jobs, and strengthen civil society and representative institutions and thus give Pakistan a better shot at becoming a stable, prosperous and democratic country in the long term.
This raises an important question: If the US no longer uses aid to persuade Pakistan, and we don’t want to use force, what is left? The answer: respect.
The Hill reported that Pakistan’s chief lobbyist has been busy explaining Pakistan’s perspective on the NATO airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and recommending to Members of Congress and US officials that the US issue an official apology for the incident.
Today, it appears that the White House is listening. The New York times reports that the US is sending the head of the military’s Central Command, Gen. James Mattis, to Pakistan to repair strained relations, and that the State Department is supporting a proposal to issue a formal apology.
“We’ve felt an apology would be helpful in creating some space,” said an American official who has been briefed on the State Department’s view and who spoke on the condition of anonymity as internal discussions continued.
This is a positive development, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it shows a change in the way American officials are viewing the relationship with Pakistan. A formal apology for the November 26 airstrike would be far more valuable than any aid package. If Gen. Mattis can deliver this to Pakistan, we could see the beginning of a new, more productive relationship between the US and Pakistan – one based not on strategic interests, but mutual respect and shared values.
“I was delighted to welcome the new ambassador here yesterday. She is someone that I’ve known for some time. My message to her was very straightforward: The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is crucial to both of our countries, to the future of our people, to the safety and security of South Asia and the world; we recognize there have been significant challenges in recent months, but we are steadfastly committed to this relationship and working together to make it productive.
So we will continue to do so, and we obviously have expressed a lot of concerns about what we see happening inside Pakistan. It has been our position to stand strongly in favor of a democratically elected civilian government, which we continue to do, and we expect Pakistan to resolve any of these internal issues in a just and transparent manner that upholds the Pakistani laws and constitution.”
QUESTION: Ambassador Sherry Rehman is expected to reach Washington this weekend. What kind of challenges do you think she will be facing? Because she comes at an important time when there is a sort of deadlock.
MS. NULAND: She does indeed come at an important time. We’re looking forward to having her here in the United States. We will, obviously, make clear to her that we consider this relationship extremely important. And although it is challenging, although it is difficult, we continue to believe that the United States and Pakistan and citizens throughout the region have an interest in the closer cooperation of our countries, and particularly in defeating the threats that challenge us both, and particularly the threat from terrorism.