Pakistan's response to absurd Pakistan-specific statements by the Bush administration and the US presidential hopefuls has been a combination of repeated official "rejection", presidential bravado and excessive media focus.
Official statements and reports suggest that US troops may enter Pakistan's tribal areas, that there are concerns that "extremists" may access Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, that Al Qaeda is gaining strength in Pakistan and that US troops will go in to nab Osama who might be hiding along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Hillary Clinton also advocates the need to have the US and the UK jointly control Pakistan's nuclear programme. Earlier, Barack Obama proposed sending US troops inside Pakistan to tackle the "extremist" threat! The IAEA chief ElBaradei's also "feared" extremists controlling Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
Reaction within Pakistan does not stop at the Foreign Office spokesman who rejected these statements and also reiterated that Pakistan has an effective Command and Control for its nuclear programme. Instead, it spills over within the broader public space.
There are other compulsive speakers. Instead of referring the local and foreign media to the spokesman's statement when questions regarding these absurd US statements are asked, the president and others are keen to engage with these statements.
This is misplaced fluster. The reason is that given the multiple strands of tension that Pakistan's internal and external context generates any new statement coming at us, especially in these times of internal turmoil, may tend to make us overreact. Within these multiple strands six factors are noteworthy.
First, the American factor in Pakistan's power construct. It has historically manifested itself in various ways, but perhaps never as blatantly as it now does. With a former military general who is a constitutionally controversial president and has increasingly lost much of the public support he once enjoyed, the popular perception is that without Washington's support he cannot remain in power. However, those in power in Pakistan have always known the fact that the paradox of their being useful to the Americans while also defying the Americans is what makes for popular leadership. These are complex matters yet they are simplistically fed to the people.
For example, the Musharraf regime has worked with the US government very closely on Pakistan's military operations in the tribal areas and hardly any US attack in the area was conducted without the Musharraf administration's clearance. Similarly, on Pakistan's domestic politics, the president himself opted to explain his regime's 'democratic journey' repeatedly to key members of the US administration and to important members of the Congress. Given this reality, the sentiments often expressed in the media can be misleading for the people. For example, a local daily in its editorial on January 15 wrote "Without mincing words President Pervez Musharraf has given warning to the US-led coalition in Afghanistan that any unauthorised incursion into Pakistan will be considered as an invasion, and if they commit this mistake they would regret it." A few weeks earlier, after Musharraf had lectured the Western diplomats on how Pakistan will find its own Pakistani path to democracy rather than following the Western path, the columnist-commentator Humayun Gauhar said on PTV (December 1), "I cried with joy and I said the chains of slavery are breaking."
The second factor is America in Pakistan's discourse. The chaos and the turbulence generated by Pakistan's incompetent statecraft have contributed to our own chaotic and reactive thought processes. For example, the American factor writ so large in our psyche makes many of us equate anti-Americanism with patriotism. So much of our intellectual and emotional energy is wasted in our reactive endeavour. Similarly, we tend to equate absurd US statements regarding attacks on Pakistan and control of our nuclear programme with serious policy moves. Instead of viewing them in a proper perspective and then brush them aside as political rhetoric, we dignify these statements by injecting them into our popular discourse. The entry of these statements into the popular discourse, in fact, adversely affects us. As a nation the more we see such statements in the popular discourse the more we tend to dis-empower ourselves psychologically. We ascribe to the "other", the power that they actually do not exercise over us. Hence, we wrongly feel vulnerable to the "other," often triggering the resentment and the rage.
There is a balance to be maintained in responding to such statements. We can neither be the proverbial ostrich imagining the US to be a benign power and hence ignoring all its aggressive statements and actions — whether Pakistan-specific or global. Equally, we cannot become obsessive about these statements, needlessly expending emotional and intellectual energies leading us to a distorted understanding of both our internal and external challenges and opportunities.
The third factor is Pakistan's induction as a point-scoring factor in the US policy and political frame. While the blundering Bush administration seeks to minimise the political damage caused by its foreign policy by letting its policy institutions talk tough to Pakistan, the US hopefuls want to gain from Bush's blunders by declaring how much tougher they intend to be vis-à-vis Pakistan. By whipping up the extremist and the nuclear fears, these hopefuls feel they can make the voters vote against the Republicans. Pakistan is now being used as the proverbial point-scorer in US politics.
The fourth factor is Pakistan's nuclear programme and the international community in opposition to it almost in perpetuity. Subsequently, the negative baggage acquired by us after the discovery of the AQ Khan network will not go away easily.
The fifth factor is the international community's fear of the damage that armed militancy caused using the name of Islam and often having links with Pakistan-based groups. Clearly, these groups have strengthened, not weakened, over time.
The sixth and an important factor is Pakistan's internal turmoil ranging from suicide bombings to the tribal areas, assassinations and depleting credibility and legitimacy of the current regime. This is all too obvious and affects Pakistan's state institutions, politics and society. Given that these six factors are at work simultaneously, what is then to be done? We should primarily remain mindful of these facts when absurd statements come at us. We must learn to respond selectively and calmly. We have no magic wand to fix all of this immediately. None of this lends itself to immediate fixing. All these factors are best addressed by sensible policies and viable processes.
On the internal front, the answers are obvious. As for external threats, we need to keep them in perspective. On some fronts we are less vulnerable than others. For example, Pakistan's strategic assets are well guarded and well managed. Yet our politics remains in turmoil and our power construct continues to function outside of the constitutional parameters. While some of the pressures we must learn to live with, given the international community's obviously prejudicial attitude towards our nuclear programme. Yet for the world to feel more confident about Pakistan we need to have our elements of national power in place: politics, economy, development, defence and governance.
* Published in the UAE's KHALEEJ TIMES Jan. 20, 2008. Nasim Zehra is an Islamabad-based national security strategist.