Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Of air strikes and political footballs

By Peter Henne

Sometimes I worry I'm too critical of both the government and major opposition figures in Pakistan, so take this with a grain of salt. But many leaders in that country seem willing to stir up either anti-American or religious sentiment (or both) to gain domestic support and distract potential critics.

This includes the government appealing to concerns over "blasphemy" in order to limit internet access. It also, unfortunately, includes attacks on US and NATO conduct in the war in Afghanistan. The most recent incident involves the Pakistani leadership criticizing a NATO air strike on Pakistani soil that killed numerous militants. This comes in the context of increased US drone strikes in Pakistan, partially in response to the Pakistani government's inability (or unwillingness) to deal with militants. The common assumption among observers of this conflict is that Pakistan secretly agreed to such actions but publicly denounces them.

The political logic is clear. The Pakistani government does not want to admit it cannot deal with the militant threat, and is unable to admit it actually benefits from these air strikes. So the government openly opposes these activities, counting on US dependence on both the strikes and Pakistan's tacit consent to prevent tensions with the United States. A similar move could be seen in Pakistani President Zardari's public feud with British leader David Cameron over the latter's critique of Pakistan's counter-terrorism efforts, which some saw as an attempt on the part of Zardari to distract attention from government inaction on the country's horrific floods. And, as seen in some of Afghan President Karzai's actions, this rhetoric may gain Pakistan's leadership sympathy from international audiences wary of the admittedly morally-questionable drone program.

The fact that these actions by the Pakistani leadership are politically beneficial is what disturbs me. It would be one thing if this was principled opposition to military actions that could harm civilians, but I doubt it's the case. It is likely just another example of leaders who are less-than-ideal US partners using both their own people's welfare and the lives and efforts of US and allied troops for political gain.

As so often seems to be the case, I'm not surprised, but I am disappointed.

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