ISLAMABAD (November 23, 2011) — Mitt Romney said it’s close to being a failed state. Rick Perry argued that it’s not our friend and shouldn’t get American aid.
I happened to be in Pakistan as the Republican presidential hopefuls debated relations with this troubled ally. The sound-bite culture of American politics tends to reduce the world to black and white. It’s rarely so simple on the receiving end of U.S. foreign policy.
There is no doubt Pakistan is a nation in turmoil. On one level, it’s a no-holds-barred democracy. But it’s also a country at war with itself.
A few hundred yards from my hotel, a governor was assassinated by his own bodyguards back in January. The hotel itself has been hit by car bombs three times. And that’s inside this heavily-fortified capital. The real violence plays out in cities and villages across the country.
It’s the most dangerous place in the world for a journalist and it’s not too healthy for anyone else. University professors are kidnapped, politicians are murdered and the average folk fall victim to sectarian violence every day.
Anti-Americanism and radicalization both are on the rise. That is directly tied to anger over U.S. drone strikes. One think tank here estimates there have been more than 60 drone attacks this year, killing some 500 people; dozens in just the last few days. Meanwhile, the Pakistani air force has dropped more than 10,000 bombs on tribal areas inside its own borders.
Then there’s Pakistani politics. Tumultuous, theatrical and high stakes. “He will be humiliated in this world and the hereafter,” said the information minister, criticizing a former foreign minister who quit the ruling party. Pakistanis take their politics seriously. Conspiracies run rife. The latest involves Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. Hussein Haqqani, who was ousted this week amid allegations that he tried to get the Pentagon to support Pakistan’s political leadership in a power struggle with the military.
The other big news these days is Imran Khan. You can’t open a newspaper or watch a TV newscast without seeing the charismatic former cricket star-turned-politician. About 100,000 people turned out recently for a rally supporting his demand for change. Good looks and a simple message work as well in the Punjab as Peoria.
Khan is a contradiction in terms. He says he’ll clean up Pakistan’s notoriously corrupt government, but he’s courting corrupt politicians. He says he’ll stop Islamist violence, but he’s playing footsie with the Taliban. He says he’ll curb the power of the Army, but no politician here holds a rally of 100,000 — without the Army’s say-so.
Pakistan may be a democracy, but it’s a Praetorian democracy; the military pulls the strings, as Haqqani’s firing underlined. That has many here speculating that Khan is the Army’s new Chosen One.
Khan’s party could take power in the next election. He wants the U.S. to take its drones and go home. America can keep its aid. He agrees with those GOP candidates: Pakistan is a mess. But he says, it’s a mess created by two Republican presidents — Ronald Reagan who armed the militants to fight the Soviets, and George W. Bush, who invaded Afghanistan to wipe out those same groups — and a Democrat, Obama, who has presided over a dramatic escalation of the drone war.
As I said, things are rarely black and white.
Lawrence Pintak is the founding dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University and the author of “The New Arab Journalist.”