By Kabir Altaf
The incident last week at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in which NATO air strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers has brought Pakistan-US relations to their lowest ebb since the OBL raid. The public reaction in both countries has revealed the extent of the mistrust between the supposed allies. The American public feels that since the US government gives Pakistan so much aid, it is ungrateful of the Pakistani government to block NATO’s supplies or ask the US to vacate airbases in the country. Americans are also angered by reports of Pakistan’s alleged double-dealing and at best grudging cooperation with Washington. The Pakistani public, on the other hand, is angered by what they see as violations of their country’s sovereignty. They also feel that fighting “America’s war” has caused a lot of blowback in their country, leading to the deaths of thousands of innocents at the hand of insurgents.
Reading the newspapers from both sides, one gets a sense of how different the narrative is in each country. The articles in The New York Times are accompanied by images of groups of bearded men burning the American flag or effigies of President Obama. If one didn’t know any better, it would be easy to form the opinion that these photographs represent the average Pakistani. The text of these articles focuses on the double-dealing of the Pakistani government and especially of the country’s armed forces. The reader comments frequently feature Americans arguing that Pakistan is the real enemy of the US and that Pakistanis are supporting Al-Qaeda.
Pakistani newspapers tell a completely different story. The Express Tribune, for example, recently featured a slideshow of anti-NATO protests around the country. The slideshow included images of student protests at Punjab University in Lahore. The protesters included young women, some clad in burqas and others in shalwar-kameez. The boys were also clean-cut and were holding signs in English. If images such as these were published in the US media, Americans would have a much harder time imagining Pakistanis as the “Other”, as strange religious fanatics who “hate us for our freedoms”. Pakistani newspapers also portray NATO as the aggressor, killing our innocent and brave soldiers. As Foreign Minister Khar recently told NPR, this latest incident is not the first time that NATO has killed Pakistani soldiers. Rather, this is the eighth time that the country has suffered casualties due to friendly fire. The reader comments on the Pakistani side reveal the depth of anger against the US and frustration with the national government which is seen as being in bed with Washington, to the detriment of the nation’s interests.
Americans and Pakistanis also have different ideas about the historical context of the bilateral relationship. For the average American, the US-Pakistan association began after September 11, 2001. They don’t understand why Pakistan is a reluctant ally. They believe that the US should be getting better results for the billions of dollars that have been given to Pakistan over the last decade. Why, they ask, should we continue to give aid to Pakistan if they are not delivering the results that they promised? However, for Pakistanis, the US-Pakistan connection did not commence just 10 years ago. Pakistanis remember how involved the US was during the first Afghan War, how Washington cooperated with General Zia’s government in funding the mujahideen and using radical Islam to defeat the Soviets. Once the Soviets were defeated, the Americans packed up and went home, leaving Pakistan to deal with the consequences of the war–the refugees, the drug addicts, the former mujahideen not fit for anything except war. Not only that, but the US also placed economic sanctions on Pakistan as a punishment for testing nuclear weapons. Given this history, many Pakistanis feel justified in mistrusting the US and believing that once Washington withdraws from Afghanistan in 2014, Pakistan will once again be abandoned and forced to deal with the consequences of US activities in the region. In such a scenario, some Pakistanis wonder why the army shouldn’t hedge its bets and retain ties with some Taliban factions who may once again come to power in a post-war Afghanistan.
As for the issue of US aid to Pakistan, the perception among many Pakistanis is that this money is not really aid but payment to the Pakistani military for services rendered. This “aid” does not buy the Americans the right to attack Pakistan whenever they please or to use unmanned drones to kill innocent residents of the tribal areas. Though the CIA claims that no civilians have died in drone attacks, Pakistanis believe this claim is not true and many people have been killed for no other crime than for living in FATA. Many Pakistanis argue that instead of US aid, they would rather their country be treated as an equal and be respected by the international community.
The US-Pakistan relationship will remain distrustful and transactional unless the citizens and governments of the two countries engage in constructive dialogue and attempt to understand each other’s viewpoints. Pakistanis need to understand why Americans are so frustrated with the relationship while Americans need to understand why Pakistanis feels so disrespected and fear that once the US achieves its objectives in Afghanistan, Pakistan will once again be abandoned.
Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated from George Washington University.