Misreading “Anti-Americanism” in Pakistan

militaryincThe latest news on US-Pakistan relations shouldn’t surprise anyone. According to the Associated Press, former Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf used billions of dollars in US military aid for everything but the paymasters’ intended purpose: fighting Taliban militias.

None of this news, however, is likely to generate much Pakistani sympathy for American taxpayers. What American officials refer to as “anti-American sentiment” is actually a deep resentment of U.S. government involvement in internal Pakistani politics. It is worth noting that U.S. funding for Musharraf marked the third time we have supported Pakistani dictatorship in the country’s 60 years of history.

It is precisely this past that has come to haunt both Pakistanis and Americans today. The intersection of dictatorship and dollars has resulted in a Pakistani military that does not answer to the country’s civilian leadership. Every time American taxpayers financed an alliance with a Pakistani military dictator, we also forced Pakistani reformers to take a backseat.

If the U.S. wants to see a truly prosperous and democratic Pakistan, we must avoid taking steps that make life harder for Pakistani civil society. Towards this end, I joined with a group of independent scholars, activists, and human rights advocates to author The Call for a New U.S. Policy Towards Pakistan. This statement included the participation of Freedom Forward, a new effort that I am proud to be involved with.

From The Call:

For too long, Pakistani citizens have struggled under corrupt and undemocratic leaders who undermined the rule of law. Of these leaders, the most damaging have been the military dictators who ruled Pakistan for more than half its existence. Each of these dictators undermined Pakistani democracy while receiving U.S. aid for supporting U.S. foreign policy.

These dictators prioritized military budgets and personal wealth over the development of society. They encouraged and leveraged militant groups for their regional rivalries…Pakistan faces many problems as a result, including underdevelopment, terrorist attacks, and an insurgency in the tribal areas.

As is frequently the case, this history gets swept under the rug in our own political discourse. Consider the recent New York Times article that explores Pakistani anger at the US. Reporter Jane Perlez references “an already volatile anti-American mood” and “fierce opposition” among Pakistani elites.

What the article doesn’t offer is historical context. Thus, Perlez writes that a recently approved US aid package to Pakistan includes language to “ensure that the [Pakistani] military does not interfere with civilian politics.”

What she fails to explore is how this might look, given that just two years earlier, the U.S. was supporting a Pakistani military dictator. Though the Obama Administration cannot be held responsible for the Bush Administration’s decisions, contradictions like the above can cast U.S. intentions in a cynical light.

Through the combination of Pakistani politics and the steroids of U.S. military aid, the Pakistani military is now a parallel institution that acts independent of Pakistani civilian leadership. It has its own economic interests and financial entities. Military analyst Ayesha Siddiqa describes the Pakistani military as “one of the biggest landowners in the country.”

In her book Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, Siddiqa writes of Pakistani military officers as members of a separate economic class:

“In fact, the military’s land acquisition, especially agricultural land, has transformed the military into one of the many land barons or feudal landlords. The behavior of senior military officers towards landless peasants or ordinary soldiers, who are also given agricultural land, is like that of any big feudal landlord.”

Fortunately, there are significant examples of civil society challenges to authoritarian power in Pakistan. As we wrote in The Call:

In 2008, Pakistani voters peacefully rejected both Islamist parties as well as candidates tied to the outgoing dictator, Pervez Musharraf. In 2008 and 2009, hundreds of thousands participated in two major “Long Marches.” These citizen-led movements challenged Musharraf’s dictatorship, as well as the corruption and manipulative actions of democratically-elected President Asif Zardari.

But if Pakistani reformers are to have better odds of success, we should end our habit of supporting the individual political elites and military rulers who stand in their way. This basic message, as reflected in The Call, is drawing support from diverse voices: professionals in Islamabad, a journalist in Seoul, a U.S. Navy veteran just outside Seattle.

Lets hope Congress and the White House get the message. Consider joining us.

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