THERE is little doubt that despite Pakistan’s many problems, its negativity is exaggerated by the outside world.
Indeed, I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked by Pakistani opinion makers why the West, specifically Washington, perceives Pakistan so negatively. Of course, the subtext of this question gets to the pervasive feeling in Pakistan that this is done deliberately.
Most Pakistani opinion makers who wager an opinion on this give some variant of an argument that accuses Washington of promoting negative opinions to pressure Pakistan to deliver in Afghanistan; or it being forced by the Indian lobby to do so; or something about the West creating a negative image as a ruse to make a case for disarming Pakistan’s nuclear capability.
Sitting in Washington, it is not difficult to see how this view is simply conspiratorial. It becomes a serious policy concern when those who matter in shaping opinions and making decisions buy such constructs without much questioning.
There have been three main drivers of the policy narrative about Pakistan in the US since 9/11.
Pakistan has been examined through an Afghan lens.
First, US and Pakistani policies have had genuine divergences on the US’s main objective in the region: eliminating the Taliban-Al Qaeda nexus and sustaining a relatively liberal, democratic Afghanistan. Negativity towards Pakistan flowed from a hard reality: Pakistan’s policy towards the Afghan insurgent groups was working at cross purposes with US objectives. The US saw Pakistan as a major spoiler; this was reflected in official statements and the tone adopted by Western media towards Pakistan.
Second, there was an anthropological problem in who was being allowed to shape the narrative about Pakistan in Washington.
Notwithstanding all the talk about Pakistan’s importance, Washington has remained thin on genuine Pakistan expertise. This is largely because the period after 9/11 produced mainly Afghan experts — Afghanistan was where US troops were, where all the money was, where US policymakers felt they needed most help. Most importantly, a significant number of US experts spends time on the ground in Afghanistan. None of this was true for Pakistan.
The discourse on Pakistan was led by these ‘Af-Pak experts’, whether within or outside officialdom, who were far more grounded in Afghan affairs and had much more exposure to the views on that side of the Durand Line. An Afghan lens was therefore applied to examine Pakistan, far too often for Washington’s own good.
However, none of this represents any scheme to malign Pakistan or undercut its interests. These voices were genuinely seeking to further US interests that did not fully overlap with Pakistan’s view of the Afghan situation and their exposure to Afghanistan prompted them to see Pakistan as little more than a country contributing to the perpetuation of an insurgency responsible for killing US soldiers.
Doing so also meant that Pakistan’s view of Indian encroachment into Afghanistan was dismissed off hand; improving Indo-US ties cemented this view.
Finally, negativity about Pakistan is a function of the negativity Pakistan’s own media projects about the country. As much as one questions Western media for remaining fixated on Pakistan’s problems, the fact is that they take their cue from the tone of the domestic media. Most Western media outlets have skeleton staff posted in-country and do not always have the penetration required to generate original content beyond a point. Their breaking stories largely build on reports from local media outlets and their contacts within this space. This may not be something Western media outlets would want to acknowledge, but have a frank discussion or two and the dynamic will become clear.
The policy implications that flow from this point to the need for a re-crafted debate on what it would take for Pakistan to be effective in putting its point of view across to Washington. It begs for a shift away from complaints about Pakistan’s negative projection; from the obsession with the Indian lobby whose only task is perceived (wrongly) to be to undercut Pakistani interests; and from a propensity to play victim in the hope that this will generate sympathy and attract support.
Rather, the focus ought to be on creating opportunities for opinion makers in Washington to spend time in and gain exposure to Pakistan; on creating a coherent narrative that comes clean on Pakistan’s Afghan policy and why it is not willing to ‘do more’ as the US has constantly demanded; and on efforts to get the Pakistani media to realise its importance in shaping Pakistan’s international opinion.
None of this, however, can happen till we first give up on our inherently conspiratorial take on everything and anything linked to Washington.
Published in Dawn March 17th , 2015