US Strategy: Wining Over People in Pakistan
The United States strategy in Pakistan is well crafted yet it may not succeed for it ignores the most critical dimension of a counter militancy alliance, winning hearts and minds of the people. And the statements coming from Washington are not helping either. America seems to be unduly focused on ensuring support of the Pakistan Army and President Zardari and the Pakistan's People's Party to ostensibly guard US interests. In the bargain it is ignoring adverse implications of its strategy on lack of support by the Pakistani people to the counter Taliban campaign. Thus much of the efforts are not paying results as the people despite being steadily bombed by young suicide bombers continue to blame the United States and not extremism unleashed by the Taliban.
Given the dismal security scenario in Pakistan in the past few weeks, US Secretary of State Ms Hillary Clinton expressed fears that the Taliban could get hold of the nuclear weapons thus, 'We can't even contemplate that. We cannot, you know, let this go on any further. Which is why we're pushing so hard for the Pakistanis to come together around a strategy to take their country back.' Earlier in the week she had issued a carte blanche to Pakistan to take on the Taliban disapproving the Sharia deal in Swat. Control of Buner by the Taliban led to the final ultimatum expressed by an US Official quoted by the Daily Times Pakistan as, 'if you don't do it (control the spread of Taliban), we may have to ' was always there.'
Influential think tanks in the United States, dailies as the New York Times and Washington Post and opinion makers as David Kilcullen bring out reports predicting the demise of Pakistan within months if not weeks. All this is fueling speculation with many expecting Behtullah Mehsud to be in command of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal within days. Undoubtedly this is a frightening scenario to say the least.
However the strategy of coercing Pakistan has only increased resistance with even the Establishment ridiculing US fears of the Taliban marching on to Islamabad from Buner. Inter Services Public Relations Director General Maj Gen Athar Abbas and a virtual spokesperson for the Army Chief General Kiyani said, 'It is impossible for a group of 200 Taliban, who have come to Buner from Swat, to storm Islamabad despite its close proximity to Buner district. No doubt, Buner is situated within a radius of 100 miles of the federal capital ... [but] the threat cannot be measured in terms of distance, rather it has to be measured in terms of counter capabilities.'
Husain Haqqani, the Pakistani ambassador in Washington was even more categorical in denouncing US criticism of his country's policy thus, 'The US needs to relate its comments to the ground realities in Pakistan instead of the mood in Washington. Most Pakistanis are not supportive of the Taliban way of life, but at the same time widespread anti-Americanism confuses many Pakistanis into having a conflicting view. We want to turn that view around but the US and its leaders must help us to do that.'
Much of this has been brought upon itself by the Pakistani leadership and the Army by failing to build public opinion against fundamentalism and extremism. This weakened its resolve to take on the Taliban while continuously maintaining the alibi of a threat from India which was exacerbated after the Mumbai attacks.
However the time now is not to relive history but to retrace measures taken over the past many decades when Islamic fundamentalism was used as state policy by military dictators in Islamabad most of whom had the support of Washington. This again is inked in the memories of the Pakistani people which has created a solid wall of resistance against America as much in the benign middle classes in Punjab and Sindh as in the Tribal Areas and North West Frontier province which suffer from US drone attacks.
All this has washed away memories of the Tokyo Friends of Pakistan efforts to muster funds for sustaining the Pakistani economy or the military and economic aid promised by Washington albeit with an accountability clause.
Under the circumstances it may appear that the US is doomed to lose sympathy amongst the Pakistani people unless it transforms its perception without changing the overall strategy. This may involve a change of attitude, a subtlety and nuanced approach which is essential at this juncture to effectively separate the Taliban from the general Pakistani state and its people.
A highly refined communication strategy would be essential to build up support of the Pakistani public and President Barack Obama has the positive image of Change which can be used to effect. The aim and focus of the US needs to be on building a favorable public opinion about Washington, a tough task given the depths it has fallen to, but there is hope, for the Pakistani is not as na've as we may think him to be.
Understating things may be more effective rather than speaking up front as is American style and culture. Thus a soft gentle approach towards building positive image by denoting what the US government has done for Pakistan and it has done a lot is important rather than harping on accountability openly, while it may be insisted upon in private.
The United States with its plethora of media resources may not need any lessons on communication only a reminder that winning hearts and minds is the key to winning the war against extremism in Pakistan.
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Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle
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