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Neetu Mahil Headshot

Waking Up to the Awakening

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2011 has begun with a bang. January saw Sudan split in two; February, great upheaval in the Middle East; March, a tri-fold disaster in Japan. April, always a hectic month, saw historic numbers of tornadoes in the U.S. but also the resolution to the civil war in Cote D'Ivoire. On May 2nd President Obama declared that Osama bin Laden had been caught and killed in Pakistan right under the noses of our so-called partner's military town of Abbottabad. In so many ways, 2011 has been about waking up: awakening to the lifespan of dictators, the real dangers of nuclear energy, the proximity of the effects of global warming. Importantly, the youth of the Middle East, and their parents behind them, finally reached critical mass in their belief that change was possible and they could speak for and make it themselves. These revolutions are as much about the awakening of the people to their own power as they are wake-up calls for regimes under which they suffered. Despotism, given the right mix of youth, anger and joblessness, will always fail in the end. Time is essentially on the people's side. It is now time for the remaining stalwarts of the world to awaken -- none more so than the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)/military complex.

They have been called many names in the wake of events which revealed that Osama bin Laden, America's public enemy number one, lived for years in a compound within earshot of Pakistan's military academy in Abbottabad. Were the Pakistani military and its intelligence arm incompetent or complicit? The Pakistanis cannot both get American military aid meant to help them find bin Laden and not come under severe heat for not finding him when he was in their very own backyard. And yet they are. Speaking before the Pakistani Parliament, Intelligence Chief Shuja Pasha condemned the raid against bin Laden and emphasized that America's violation of Pakistani sovereignty was unacceptable. At the close of the eleven-hour meeting, even those members of Parliament most skeptical of the ISI fell in ranks behind Pasha. His offers to resign have been denied. While Pakistani officials pretend to brew with anger at America's intrusion, they are not providing answers for the really important questions: why did America keep the ISI in the dark about the raid in the first place? Why was Osama bin Laden found in Abbottabad and why are so many other groups such as the Haqqani network still living in peace in Pakistan?

The short answer is that Pakistan's military and intelligence agency is caught in the middle. While America expects results, many Pakistanis are sympathetic to the Taliban and are among the most anti-American people on earth. To maintain their power and legitimacy they must play a kind of triple-double game: paying lip service to the Americans, lying to their own people, and most dangerously deluding themselves into believing their tacit support of some extremist outfits is sustainable. Secret cables released by Wikileaks to the Pakistani English-language newspaper Dawn have revealed that, "Pakistani officials, including those as high-ranking as Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, explicitly asked US representatives to increase drone activity in Pakistan - the kind of request no Pakistani politician or government official would be comfortable making in public."

But the Pakistanis are walking a precarious tightrope by trying to at once use the Taliban and other violent groups as leverage against foreign powers, namely India, while at the same time accepting American military aid to fight these same elements. Pakistan's leadership, corrupt and inherently duplicitous, either doesn't know (which suggests incompetence) or doesn't care (which reveals complicity) that their game fatally affects their own innocent civilians most; killing of civilians by anyone anywhere is simply and always wrong.

Unfortunately, the self-denial of President Asif Zardari, Prime Minister Yousef Gilani, and Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Kayani runs so deep that they don't realize how precarious their position is. Just like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad of Iran, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, and Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Pakistan's leaders allow themselves to believe that they are protecting the very people they spy on. They tell the Pakistani people to trust in them for they alone will save Pakistan. They convince themselves that they must remain vigilant against India by fomenting insurgencies against it. Yet more than the fact that India has never invaded or tried to invade Pakistan, the truth is that in order to maintain their power, they must maintain and convince their people of the existence of a foreign enemy. The people of Pakistan have been bamboozled for too long into believing that India presents a real and present threat to Pakistan.

It is true that from the 1947 partition onwards, India and Pakistan would be locked into a life-long conflict over water, land, and people -- ironically the very things partitioned by the line drawn by British officer Cyril John Radcliffe, a man who spent a total of three months in India never to return. While India has not always been a reassuring neighbor, it has generally watched the escalation of tensions and coinciding arms race between neighbors with genuine fear and apprehension -- reacting with policies and military spending reflecting this fact.

The stakes are high for the ISI/military complex; this group of active and retired individuals benefit financially from their position at the apex of Pakistani society. According to Ayesha Siddiq, author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy, "the Pakistani military runs thousands of businesses worth tens of billions of dollars, ranging from street-corner petrol pumps to sprawling industrial plants."

Still because the military and ISI in Pakistan play a crucial, if slightly contrived, role in fighting violent extremism, America helps them scale up efforts by increasing military aid. Maybe as Bill Maher, American comedian and talk-show host, poignantly suggests, US military aid should be based on results. We shouldn't pay Pakistan in hopes they might deliver, but rather when they actually do. According to Christine Fair, a specialist on South Asia at Georgetown University, while U.S. economic aid used to be "demand driven" -- local groups and governments applied for grants and funds were matched to needs, this hasn't been the model for decades. Maybe it should be again.

When it came to the Arab Spring, many believed that it was the people of Egypt and Tunisia that finally awakened. While it is true that what they have accomplished peacefully and in little time can been seen as a kind of awakening, hadn't the people of these countries always known that they lived under autocratic and corrupt leadership? Haven't there always existed infinite Egyptian jokes to this effect? The real awakening occurred in the minds of those autocratic and corrupt leaders, when they woke up to the idea that they were not as loved nor as needed as they had believed for decades. Mubarak, surprised that the Egyptian people despised him, had a heart attack. Ben Ali and his ridiculous wife and family fled. In the end, American financial and political support did little to protect these autocrats from the wrath of their own masses. In Pakistan's case, the risks of such unrest include an exponential backslide into chaos: further economic ruin, potential nuclear catastrophe, political and regional fracturing, and ever more violent extremism.

The leaders of Pakistan are the ones who must now awaken to the certainty that what is happening in the Arab world might soon happen closer to home. They must wake up to the fact that their actions affect their subjects hardest of all. The paranoid dolts currently churning out nuclear weapons and abetting Osama bin Laden have failed their people with record inflation and unemployment. Mired in poverty, lacking basic services, education and general security, the vast numbers of Pakistani youth have dim economic prospects. Pakistan is a powder keg that will soon explode; its leaders must wake up. Their game is well known and unsustainable. Unlike the Arab Spring, Pakistan may not survive the fallout of social unrest.

The people of Pakistan deserve better leadership, competent, realistic, and honest. Sadly, it is civilians in Pakistan who are truly caught holding the proverbial bag: caught between American drones, Taliban suicide bombings, and the dreaminess of their leaders. As much as the Pakistani people must wake up to this fact, so too must their nightmarish leaders.