Fear and Self-loathing in South Asia

By John Still

CIA Director Leon Panetta is currently engaged in the latest round of talks in Islamabad, arriving the day after the head of the Pakistani Army, General Ashfaq Kayani, attempted to win back some respect from the Pakistani population by urging the US to divert some of its US$3 billion-a-year aid to “help the common man” while also advocating a forceful re-assertion of Pakistan’s sovereignty. These concerns would be heartening if they were not so transparent. Kayani’s concern for the “common man” must have been conspicuously absent when arming his 500,000 man army using American aid dollars.

Last month, the Pakistan military showed off a low-yield nuclear capability that represents not only the most recent misuse of Western taxpayers’ money, but a weapon entirely incapable of combating the militant groups who murder dozens of innocent Pakistani “common” men and women almost every day. Kayani’s actions embody the Pakistani military’s ever more frantic state of paranoia, insecurity and fear. And despite rising domestic instability, corruption and sectarian violence, the Pakistani armed forces remain ready and able to fight India.

Kayani’s statement would also have been more admirable had it not come from a man whose narrative paints the military as admitting either incompetence or duplicity after the Abbotabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Worse still, the US was forced to conduct this raid secretly, out of fear that the Pakistani Intelligence Service, the ISI, might tip off bin Laden and his associates. Subsequent actions have shown this was no idle fear on the part of the US: after sharing intelligence with the ISI on the precise location of insurgent bomb factories in North and South Waziristan during a trust building exercise conducted after the Abbotabad raid, the factories were mysteriously found empty when Pakistani military units moved in on 4 June.

Similarly, Kayani’s desire to reassert Pakistani sovereignty might be a little more valid if Pakistan had not lost control over much of the North West Frontier Province or Baluchistan, or if Pakistan had openly admitted that harbouring terrorist groups, however repugnant, is within its legitimate rights as a sovereign state. Kayani has been humiliated into pleading for respect from a largely anti-American Pakistani public because he is unwilling to assert himself more forcefully against unpopular US raids, drone strikes and CIA operations, lest Western aid to his country suddenly dry up.

Could anything else be more self-defeating than begging for respect in this context? While imploring the Pakistani public to not blame their own army, Kayani’s recent rhetoric is filled with a sense of shame and self-loathing while trying to imbue the public with fear. Desperate for aid from a country he hates, Kayani is forced into claiming to have been “betrayed by the US” even having the nerve to call for “a reassessment of Pakistan’s relationship with the US in the wake of recent events” (rather than the other way round).

The US-Pakistani relationship is so dysfunctional that both sides find themselves in an unenviable position. The US is actively funding and aiding a state which – through its corruption and mishandling of funds – uses that money to train and direct militant groups, some of which desire nothing more than to die whilst killing ISAF servicemen and women in Afghanistan or while attacking Western civilians on their own soil. The Pakistani military finds itself combating militant groups who despise its continuing alliance with the US, but are unable to break the alliance as it desires the aid that the West provides to combat India.

Additionally, Pakistan needs to keep Afghanistan weak, with a pliant pro-Pakistani government that will allow Afghani territory to be used as a training ground for Pakistani militants. The West needs Afghanistan strong, so that its territory will not be host to these same groups. Western and Pakistani aims are directly opposed and yet the West continues to act as though these aims can be reconciled, continually pouring in aid and sacrificing the lives of Pakistani, Afghani and Western soldiers and civilians while ignoring warnings that they are fighting the War on Terror in the wrong country.

The West must accept some responsibility for this dysfunctional relationship. Pakistan has been both lauded as trusted friend and demonised as a nuclear pariah in the past, often in quick succession. Depending on the level of Western involvement in the region the West has applied and lifted sanctions and concentrated aid on the military dimension at the expense of Pakistan’s vast social, economic and political problems. A third of Pakistanis do not have access to clean drinking water while nearly half lack access to proper sanitation. This should not be a surprise to anyone, as Pakistan is a country where in the years since 2001 less than one per cent of its population has paid income tax.

Ignoring these problems while solely funding the military has made Pakistan one of the most anti-American places on earth. Pakistan’s behaviour is blatantly deceitful, but is based on the legitimate belief that the West will be gone shortly after 2014, leaving Pakistan to face militant groups who have taken offense at the close Pakistani-US relationship and a growing Indian presence in Afghanistan. In this fearful, paranoid environment the social, economic and political concerns of the Pakistani people will continue to be sidelined as sectarian violence and poverty tighten their grip.

Targeted economic assistance may go further than pouring in endless amounts of military aid in helping the common man or woman in Pakistan. Opening up US and EU markets to Pakistani textiles would be a helpful first step. Further aid should be given but made contingent on demonstrable steps towards reforming tax, combating corruption, promoting transparency and abandoning militancy. This may go some way to improving the lives of the Pakistani people over the next decade while wrestling power away from military leaders like Kayani who want to further damage the US-Pakistani relationship by motivating the people with his own fear and self-loathing.


John Still is an undergraduate in War Studies at King's College London, and an editorial intern at The Heptagon Post. His research interests include South Asian politics and security, with an emphasis on Afghanistan and Pakistan.


24 June 2011