Petraeus advises amnesia - Zafar Hilaly - Tuesday, March 22, 2011

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There comes a point at which forbearance ceases to be a virtue, and that point was surely reached when the latest US drone attack accounted for the deaths of 44 innocent tribesmen in North Waziristan. We were told better intelligence-sharing and greater accuracy had virtually eliminated the possibility of error but, clearly, drone targeting remains a victim of faulty intelligence and trigger-happy drone operators who care a fig who they kill or maim.

The intoxication with military power has created a loophole in the American mind through which a pervert seems to have crawled, treating civilians as expendable, mere chaff. Terms such as “collateral damage” are concocted to justify faulty targeting. They are useful contrivances which trivialise death and enable the US military to pass them off as inevitable, and, hence, an acceptable consequence of war. They are bland enough not to convey the full measure of the mayhem and grief. By depicting as unavoidable and mistaken what is deliberate and inexcusable, they suggest that a touch of remorse and a few dollars should suffice to atone for the pain caused by the killings. Such cynicism thankfully does not wash any more.

If careless bombing of innocent civilians by Qaddafi’s pilots is a war crime sufficient to alert the International Criminal Court, why cannot irresponsible targeting by US drones killing innocent Pakistanis warrant a similar complaint? In fact, just so this cannot happen, America has arrangements in place preventing the transfers of its own personnel to the ICC, thus effectively extra-territorialising Americans engaged in counterinsurgency everywhere, no matter what actions they might take or what crimes they may commit.

British historian A J P Taylor said human blunders do more to shape history than human wickedness. For the US, which has a monopoly of both, the distinction is irrelevant. Americans are indeed shaping history, but in a direction that ensures their defeat in Afghanistan and in the undeclared war they are waging on Pakistan. Already, no American dares venture onto the streets of Pakistan due to flawed US policies, but more so to the reckless use of American military power. Iraq and Afghanistan are further contemporary examples of this phenomenon, just like Vietnam was of earlier decades.

Surely, Pakistan can no longer bow in supine submission to what is wrong and unacceptable, morally, legally, politically and militarily. American blundering and the accompanying mindset are intolerable. They fuel terror, and to the vast majority of our people they are evil and selfish. If pacts have to be made with the devil they may as well be made with the Taliban.

Our response to the latest drone atrocity should not be limited to postponing participation in the NATO meeting in Brussels, or confined to cliches such as “Pakistan cannot be taken for granted.” We are and have been taken for granted by the Americans for as long as one can remember. Any doubt on that score should have been removed by Petraeus’s recent remark advising Pakistan to forget about the latest drone incident and get on with the North Waziristan operation. It was a reminder not only of American indifference and our powerlessness but also the timidity of our leaders. Or else, by now, a drone would have been downed in retaliation, accompanied by an announcement shelving the North Waziristan operation.

We must not be stampeded into action by alarmist American prattling about the gargantuan dimensions of the threat we confront from extremists. Extremism is indeed the hallmark of empty souls and empty minds. Extremist propositions which claim to have a monopoly of the truth do enter the mind now and then to dislocate and strain, but in due course, given time, they are expelled by instinct. That’s how it has always been in the subcontinent and there is nothing to suggest that our psyche has changed. The battle against extremism has to be fought against rural vagabonds and their urban counterparts, as much in the minds of Pakistanis and in the classrooms of Pakistan as in our mountains and cities. It is an ideological, political and spiritual battle, rather than purely a military affair. And, because it cannot be won exclusively by military means, the American preoccupation with force is more of a hindrance than a help.

The controversy surrounding the release of Raymond Davis and the rage that has swept the country following the drone attack have once again raised doubts about the efficacy of the alliance. The general view is that the benefits are meagre; they have been too long in coming and the price is too steep. Indeed, a recent report shows that Pakistan’s “economic losses as a result of the war exceed the amount of aid received from the US by five times” ($43 billion v $8 billion). Of course, that is not to say that the expenditure would not have been incurred had the Americans not been involved; we may have had to foot the entire bill rather than only a major part. However, working with the Americans entwines our destiny with theirs and that is far, far from what we wish or what we consider in our interests.

Our respective concerns are very different. While the US does not want the region to become a ballpark for extremism which will threaten mainland America, our fear is being outflanked by India in cahoots with a hostile Afghanistan. Rather than allay such fears, America’s India-centric approach to the region has further heightened them. As a result the acrimony and mistrust has seldom been greater or our security more imperilled. So much so that we seem to be working at cross-purposes and the contradictions are becoming more apparent by the day. Following the drone attack and the declaration that the Wazir tribes now regard the US as an enemy and will take up arms against them, Pakistan faces a situation where an ally has been proclaimed an enemy by the entire population of a strategically located segment of the country.

Instead of engaging exclusively with the Pakistani establishment, Washington should widen the ambit of the dialogue to include the public, because when it comes to relations with the US the two are no longer on the same page. Similarly, for our military to think that it can alone call the shots and single-handedly deal with a vexed and complex relationship is folly. Matters have gone far beyond that. Pakistan-US relations now rank with the economy as perhaps the two issues of most concern to Pakistanis. The public’s voice must not only be heard but heeded or else the divisions and malaise which afflict Pakistani society and Pakistan-US relations will become endemic and terminal, and hence the urgency for a national government and national consensus.

Ultimately, action, and not words or sentiments, will determine the future of the US alliance. More errant drone strikes will effectively end it because, if truth be told, the “friendship” that exists today is no more than a pious fraud.

The writer is a former ambassador. Email:

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