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Ali A. Rizvi

Ali A. Rizvi

Posted March 9, 2009 | 02:27 PM (EST)

A Peek at America's Possible Future Pakistan Policy


Four days after 9/11, Pakistani-British writer and political activist Tariq Ali wrote about an encounter he had with a Pakistani army general whom he asked about Islamist militants in the region.

Why had they been so receptive to American financing and weapon support during the Cold War, only to turn against the US overnight?

"Pakistan was the condom the Americans needed to enter Afghanistan," replied the general. "We've served our purpose and they think we can be just flushed down the toilet."

"The old condom is being fished out for use once again," wrote Ali at the time. "But will it work?"

He may have had a point.

Seven years later, the United States is quagmired in a violent insurgency in Afghanistan, while Pakistan, having surrendered part of its territory to Islamist militant control under a "peace deal", is on the verge of becoming a failed state. Triggered by the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore this week, Ali reiterated his contention about Pakistan in The Guardian: "The appalling terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers in Pakistan had one aim: to demonstrate to Washington that the country is ungovernable."

Americans have been paying more attention to Tariq Ali -- the man who in 1968 inspired the Rolling Stones song "Street Fighting Man" -- since he published his book, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, last fall.

One of them is Bruce Riedel, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution who previously served as a CIA official for almost thirty years. Riedel, known for his harsh criticism of the Bush administration's policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, was tapped as a foreign policy advisor by Barack Obama during his presidential campaign. Last month, Riedel was appointed by the Obama administration to head a White House review committee on policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, an overhaul of which is to be completed before April's NATO summit.

In a glowing review of Tariq Ali's book, Riedel acknowledges Ali's assertion that the US has had a significant role in the peril that Pakistan faces today:

"Ali rightly notes that the United States has consistently chosen to back Pakistan's military dictators when they seized power from elected governments. Eisenhower and Kennedy backed the first dictator, Ayub Khan; JFK even gave him a state dinner at Mount Vernon and took him to Newport, R.I. Nixon famously tilted toward Yahya Khan during Pakistan's brutal attempt to crush Bangladesh. Carter and Reagan backed Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq to help defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, inadvertently giving birth to the modern jihadist movement. And George W. Bush backed Pervez Musharraf in return for help fighting al-Qaeda, even through the general perverted election after election to stay in power. Blind U.S. support for these military strongmen has eroded Pakistan's civil institutions and rule of law, along with America's claim to support freedom and democracy in the Islamic world."
Riedel points out the part that both of his employers -- the CIA and the Brookings Institution -- have played in the genesis of Pakistan's current state, and also agrees with Ali's criticism of Barack Obama's pledge to unilaterally strike Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan in the presence of actionable intelligence and absence of cooperation from the Pakistani government. In an interview with Dubai-based Pakistani news channel ARY One World, Riedel, while acknowledging the success of recent US strikes in Pakistan near the Afghan border, noted that there was a "counterproductive element" to them, as they alienate the Pakistani people away from the United States.

While he calls many of Ali's policy suggestions "useful", Riedel is also cautious about his underestimation of the threat of Al Qaeda both to Pakistan and the United States, and warns of a possible sanctuary in Pakistan for terrorists who may bring about another world-changing event with dangerous consequences.

In contrast to the policy of the Bush administration, however, Riedel proposes an approach that is beyond just militaristic. "The Duel makes a strong case that the United States should back Pakistan's civilian leadership, flawed as it is, in an effort to build a modern Islamic democracy," he writes. "That will require much more economic aid, creative diplomacy to ease tensions with Afghanistan and India, straight talk about ending Pakistan's ties to terrorism, and patience. It will take time to recover from the Bush-Musharraf legacy, but we cannot afford a failed state in Pakistan, especially one that bears the label Made in the U.S.A."

Favoring a multi-pronged approach to the problems facing and arising from Pakistan, Riedel has stressed the need to look at them in a regional context. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing the influence that Pakistan's concerns about India has had on how it handles Afghanistan.

He also understands that all of this will need to be balanced delicately with a strategy to deal with the distrust that citizens in all of these countries have developed towards the United States in the last few decades. The people in the region still remember Ronald Reagan famously calling the Afghan Mujahideen (which literally means "those involved in a jihad") the "moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers" when they were helping the United States fight the Soviet Union -- and then turning on them as they became Taliban terrorists. As Tariq Ali points out in The Duel, if America once turned on the allies that helped it defeat the Soviets, many Pakistanis feel, what would stop it from turning on Pakistan?

"You... have to deal with [these problems] with a great degree of subtlety and sophistication," Riedel told ARY One World in January. "Because there are decades-old fears among all the parties about American intentions."

You can't effectively treat a condition without a diagnosis, and only time will tell if the new administration's management strategy will be effective. But in Bruce Riedel, the United States finally has a skilled diagnostician.

This is a positive start -- and it might serve as a good opportunity to do away with the need for more future used-condom analogies.