They hate our freedoms’. This is what President George W. Bush said to a Joint Session of Congress on 20th September 2011 when trying to explain why the 9/11 attacks had taken place. At the time, and in the bloody years that followed, many around the world recognised Bush’s words for what they really were; a glib and superficial reduction of a complex issue into a simple sound bite designed to whip up jingoistic sentiment and legitimise the War on Terror. By declaring the conflict between the USA and Al-Qaeda to be one defined by a fundamental ideological and cultural divide, Bush conveniently glossed over the very real, material roots of terror and Islamist violence, and the role played by his country in fostering the instability that gave birth to them.
Across the Middle East, American support for brutal and parasitical dictatorships, its utter lack of sympathy for the Palestinian people, its implicit support for the spread of Saudi Wahhabism as a counterweight to Iranian influence, and its cultivation of jihadi actors in Afghanistan and elsewhere, all contributed to the birth of organisations like Al-Qaeda. As Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan descend further into chaos, victims of yet more imperial misadventures this past decade, it is clear that the USA has failed to learn the lessons of history.
Pakistan’s relationship with the United States is often portrayed as being a transactional one in which the former has repeatedly rendered services for the latter in exchange for aid and military assistance. These services have included supporting the USA during the Cold War, facilitating the reestablishment of diplomatic ties with China, and supporting the Afghan Jihad against the USSR in the 1980s. More recently, Pakistan has ostensibly been an ally of the USA in the War on Terror, working with it to fight the Taliban and other extremist Islamist groups in Afghanistan.
In this context, news that the USA has been making greater overtures towards India, and reports of reductions in economic and military assistance to Pakistan, have largely been met with the customary wailing and gnashing of teeth that usually erupts when yet more evidence emerges of perceived American perfidy. The standard narrative that is weaved at these junctures is one that lambasts the USA for failing to cultivate ‘deeper’ ties with Pakistan, arguing that the sacrifices rendered in support of American interests warrant a longer term engagement that moves beyond purely strategic areas to trade and cooperation in other spheres of life. Following from this, America’s cyclical disenchantment with Pakistan is portrayed as yet more evidence of how it, and the rest of the world, remain intrinsically arrayed against a country that has done little to warrant the opprobrium that is often directed its way. This entrenches and reinforces the dominant, right-wing anti-Americanism championed by religious parties that melds standard arguments against American imperialism with assertions that the USA acts not only to secure its interests, but to oppress and subjugate the Muslim world.
Like George W. Bush, the religious right in Pakistan makes the mistake of assigning primary causal weight to ideology and culture rather than the material imperatives that shape relations between states. The Pakistani establishment is more modest in its claims, preferring instead to restrict its criticisms to denunciations of American arrogance and ignorance, but also finds itself in the same boat as George W. Bush when it fails to properly answer the question, ‘why do they hate us’.
As shown by even the most cursory search on the internet for news related to Pakistan, the world does not share many of the perceptions that are peddled in the mainstream media and public discourse of this country. Across the globe, newspaper stories, editorials, op-eds, blogs, and video clips display a disturbing amount of uniformity when pointing out how, in their opinion, Pakistan is a largely dysfunctional state ruled by a kleptocratic elite and a military establishment committed to spreading terrorism throughout the world. Where Pakistan sees the dwindling of US aid as being evidence of yet more betrayal and insensitivity, the world sees it as being a necessary and overdue step required to punish a pariah state.
It goes without saying that a lot of these external perceptions are incorrect and overblown, with a lack of nuance and appreciation for complexity again militating against greater understanding and empathy. It would also be unwise to entirely dismiss the argument, often made by the government, that lobbying by antagonistic external actors plays a role in fostering a negative image of Pakistan. However, it would be an even greater mistake to not look inwards and understand precisely how and why the country has reached a point where its constant attempts to clarify its position continually fall on deaf ears.
After yet another week of terror – with the attacks in Peshawar and Mardan – it is important to recognise that Islamist militancy is far from defeated in Pakistan, and that the conditions that gave birth to it continue to persist. Not only does Pakistan continue to suffer from grinding poverty and poor governance, it seemingly remains trapped in a security paradigm that sees the cultivation of religious proxies – in Afghanistan and for use in Indian Kashmir – as being a central pillar of its foreign policy. Moreover, it continues to tolerate the existence of religious organisations and institutions that exhort their followers to perpetrate acts of terror at home and abroad, and which have repeatedly been linked to violent plots around the world. Animosity towards Pakistan does not exist because it is a Muslim country, nor is it borne out of ignorance; instead, it could be argued that many outside of the country see Pakistan as being little more than a country that has been willing to accommodate different strands of often violent extremism, some of which are explicitly oriented towards the rest of the world.
Corruption and dysfunction are not unique to Pakistan, nor are they the reason why the country seems to be losing all the diplomatic battles it has been fighting. Again, as has been pointed out repeatedly by observers and commentators far more astute than myself, the problem lies with the state’s continued tolerance for militant groups on its soil. Until that changes, Pakistan’s future will remain uncertain and precarious, both domestically and internationally.