"What you mean 'we,' kemosabe?"; Pakistani anti-American attitudes and their implications

05/25/2011 02:40 pm ET

In a classic Mad Magazine cartoon (that I dimly recall), the Lone Ranger and Tonto are surrounded by a horde of hostile Indian warriors. The Lone Ranger says to Tonto "what do we do, now?," to which Tonto replies, "what you mean 'we,' kemosabe?"

One has the impression that the Obama administration feels like that is the response it has been getting from Pakistan, and indeed doubts about Pakistan's status as a U.S. ally are nothing new. One thing that has received renewed attention of late, however, is the extent of anti-American sentiment of Pakistanis. Awareness of hostility to America among Pakistanis received a jolt with the publication of an Al Jazeera/Gallup poll in July 2009. In that poll, Pakistanis identified the U.S. as a greater threat to Pakistan (59%) than either the Taliban (11%) or India (18%). In that same poll, an overwhelming 67% of respondents opposed U.S. operations on Pakistani soil. A Pew Research poll in August 2009 confirmed these findings, but added some interesting nuances. While no fewer than 69% of respondents expressed concern that extremist forces could seize control of the country, 64% continued to describe the U.S. as an "enemy" and only 9% described it as a "partner."

At the same time, there were elements in the Pew poll results that muddied the waters. By a margin of 53% to 29%, respondents said it was important that U.S.-Pakistani relations improve, an odd statement about an "enemy." Even more confusing, 72% support continued U.S. financial and humanitarian aid, and 63% support the U.S. continuing to provide support to the military. In a beautiful illustration of the principle that question order matters in polling design, when the question about U.S. missile strikes against extremist leaders was asked after the series of questions about U.S. support and cooperation generally, support for such strikes soars to the 47% level.

Many Americans find Pakistani anti-Americanism baffling. Americans see a nation whose military was built and is supported largely by American money, facing a threat from America's own enemies, whose government professes to be an American ally at every opportunity. Certainly the drone attacks cause resentment, but they have caused far fewer deaths than attacks by extremists or the Pakistani Army's campaigns against those forces. So how, from the American perspective, is anti-American sentiment to be explained?

There are three narratives that help Americans explain Pakistani hostility: let's call them the "secret enemy" narrative, the "two-faced government" narrative, and the "quagmire" narrative. It is important to recognize that all three of these narratives have purchase because they appear against a background of general negative American attitudes toward Pakistan. In a 2007 Gallup poll, 64% of respondents had a negative view of Pakistan, a number that is generally consistent with results dating back to before 9/11.

The Secret Enemy Narrative

The first narrative is one that posits Pakistan as nothing less than a U.S. enemy, or, at a minimum, as an ally of U.S. enemies. The key claim here is that Al Qaeda and Taliban forces fighting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan have safe havens in Pakistan, where they are sheltered and supported by the Pakistani military and intelligence establishments. In addition, while there have always been a trickle of stories about cooperation between Pakistan's military and intelligence services and Taliban or Al Qaeda forces, lately that trickle has become a torrent. This week, French investigative magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguiere is going to publish a book in which he accuses Pakistani government and military officials of supporting Al Qaeda. David Rohde's account of his capture by Taliban forces cites U.S. officials statements' that Pakistani military and intelligence forces provide money, supplies, and strategic planning to Taliban groups, specifically including the group led by Mawlawi Haqqani. The Haqqani network is a special point of contention between the U.S. and Pakistan, as it is blamed for many of the attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. (For an extended report on the background of the Haqqani network and its relationship with the ISI, see this report by the Institute for the Study of War.)

One also hears a great deal of this narrative from within the U.S. military. In October Col. David Haight, the U.S,. military commander of forces in Wardak, sent an e-mail to his forces encouraging them not to lose heart after months of lethal fighting. Among other things, the commander commented "We knew that the summer months would bring increased enemy activity. Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader headquartered at the Quetta Shura in Pakistan, transmitted that Wardak would be his main effort." The Pakistani Army's unwillingness to take action in Quetta was one of the key points at issue in Pakistani opposition to the current U.S. aid bill. Similarly, the announcement that the Pakistani Army had reached a truce deal with two Taliban commanders - Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur - as part of the South Waziristand operation was greeted by both Stars and Stripes and Yahoo News with the headline "Pakistan cuts deal with anti-American militants." (The link to that story in Stars and Stripes, interestingly, no longer functions. The title can be found with an internal search result here; Yahoo!'s publication of the original AP story can be found here.

A variation on the "secret enemy" narrative is the "indifferent ally" narrative, in which Pakistan is willing to fight against Taliban and other extremist forces when it suits them, and to continue supporting those same groups when it doesn't. As Rep. Jane Harman is quoted as saying in today's New York Times, "They are focused on who they think are threats to them. Period." (This in a generally sympathetic treatment of Pakistan that emphasizes the need for the U.S. to demonstrate a long-term "commitment" in Afghanistan.) Those extremist groups who, according to this account, Pakistan's military and intelligence forces do not think of as a threat include groups that operate in Afghanistan and those that launch attacks against India. As I wrote earlier, there is some reason to believe that the Pakistani leadership has begun to rethink their relationships with these groups, but as of yet there has been no concrete action to suggest a change in what is at any rate a murky policy.

The policy implications of the secret enemy narrative are sobering. If Pakistan is dominated by an anti-American population led by pro-Taliban forces (or some variation of that theme), then prospects for the future in not only Pakistan but also Afghanistan are dim, indeed. During the campaign, candidate Obama spoke of sending troops across the Pakistani border; if one accepts the "secret enemy" narrative, we need to hear more of that talk.

The Two-Faced Government Narrative

The second narrative is the "two-faced government" narrative. In this second story, the Pakistani governments stand accused of appealing to anti-American sentiment among the Pakistani people, who would (or might) otherwise recognize that their true interests are with the Americans. The drone attacks are Exhibit A, just as they are Exhibit A for anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. For months, Pakistani government officials complained that the drone attacks constitute violations of Pakistani sovereignty. But way back in February, U.S. officials (not to mention Google Maps images released by the London Times) confirmed the fact that the drones were being flown out of Shamsi air base, a fact reported in the Pakistani press.

Yet Zardari and other government officials continue to criticize the Americans' actions. In this second narrative the Pakistani government and military leadership appear as opportunistic con artist. The argument is that the U.S. is being played for suckers in the War on Terror as it was once similarly played throughout the Cold War. The most recent piece of this story was the report by Associated Press that out of $8.6 billion in U.S. military aid given to Pakistan between 2002 and 2008 only $500 million actually went to pay for operations against the Taliban or in support of U.S., forces in Afghanistan, while the remaining $8.1 billion - a staggering 94% -- was diverted to purchase weapons systems for use against India and for domestic subsidies. This year, the U.S. has promised a 5-year $7.5 billion military aid package, with a proposal for an additional $7.5 billion for the period from 2015-2019. The new aid bill caused great controversy in that it required Pakistan to "continue to cooperate" on nuclear weapons, make "significant efforts" against terrorist groups "such as ceasing support"; and ensuring that Pakistani security forces are "not materially and substantially subverting the political or judicial processes of Pakistan." From the American side, the explanation is simple: the Pakistani leadership will not accept any oversight of any kind on how it uses American money, which it has every intention of using for its own purposes that have little to do with American priorities. (This is all basic and public information, but for an extended essay treatment of this narrative, go here.)

The approach that this understanding seems to recommend is tough love: force the Pakistani leadership to acknowledge its dependence on the U.S., make them spend U.S. dollars the way they were intended to be spent rather than being diverted toward military preparations for future conflict with India. In short, compel the Pakistani leadership to become democratic, transparent, and pro-American under threat of being cut off. Then the people, or at least a lot of them, will realize that their true interests lie with America, after all.

The quagmire narrative

The third narrative is the "quagmire" narrative. This account, popular on the American Left, holds that American presence in Pakistan - and Afghanistan, for that matter -- can only cause resentment and inspire further resentment. Like the Pakistani respondents to the Pew Research poll, Americans who take this view favor humanitarian aid and intelligence cooperation, but nothing more. This is not by any means a uniquely American view. Writing in Le Monde Diplomatique, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, Nov. 2 2009 quotes Pakistani political analyst Asif Ezdi explaining that "the wellspring of Islamic militancy in Pakistan is to be found in the alienation of the mass of the population by a ruling elite that has used the state to protect and expand its own privileges, pushing the common man into deeper and deeper poverty and hopelessness."

The quagmire narrative leads to an argument for disengagement. If the Pakistani leadership chooses not to take action against Al Qaeda and Taliban forces that operate in Afghanistan, terrorist groups that launch attacks against India, and groups that set off bombs inside Pakistan, that is their own business. Besides, goes the argument, it is only American and NATO presence in Afghanistan that provokes (some of) these attacks in the first place. If future attacks against the U.S. are launched by Al Qaeda forces within Pakistan, or if military conflict with India or a radical takeover of Pakistan become imminent threats, well, America can jump off that bridge when we come to it.

And so, kemosabe?

None of these narratives is quite persuasive, and none of the policy prescriptions I have mentioned are particularly attractive, yet both the narratives and the prescriptions have elements of truth sufficient to keep them going. Meanwhile, beyond the policy there is the politics. Obama and anyone else trying to persuade us to adopt a particular strategy has to be able to make make sense to Americans of the otherwise deeply confusing fact that an awful lot of Pakistanis seem to see the conflict in their country as America's war even as bombs go off in marketplaces in Peshawar.

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