Why the U.S. Is Not Winning “Hearts and Minds” in Pakistan
As the media coverage of more recent world events overshadows that of Pakistan's unprecedented flooding in August 2010, the crisis is far from over. An estimated 1.4 million internally displaced people remain in refugee camps and informal settlements. The UN World Health Organization reports that acute respiratory infections are on the upswing in northern Pakistan, while concerns persist over malaria and cholera near the Indus Valley. Relief workers are working tirelessly to provide food, medicine, and potable water but funds are drying up quickly. The Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) recently called for a generous and swift international response to the $2 billion appeal for aid for Pakistan flood victims, which was just 34 percent funded. Besides tending to the immediate needs of displaced people, Pakistan is also struggling to rebuild its infrastructure. The floods damaged an estimated 5 million homes, submerged 5,000 miles of roads, and washed away 7,000 schools and 400 health facilities that will take years to rebuild. The World Bank and Asian Development Bank recently announced that the floods caused an estimated $9.7 billion in damage across the country.
As Pakistan struggles to remain afloat, American foreign policy certainly isn’t helping. Traveling from the southern tip of Karachi to the northern tip of Kohistan, I recently spoke with countless internally displaced Pakistanis about the epic floods, their government’s response to the tragedy, and America’s involvement in their country. Pakistanis consistently told me the U.S. cannot win their “hearts and minds” through a schizophrenic policy of distributing food with one hand, and arming drones with the other. Many said they are infuriated that CIA drones carried out 21 strikes in September — the highest number since the clandestine operation began six years ago — just a month after their country experienced the worst natural disaster in its recent history. “In the U.S., almost ten years ago, you experienced 9/11 but, here in Pakistan, almost every day we are experiencing 9/11,” said Hassan Ali Khan who works with a local grassroots nonprofit, Omar Asghar Khan Development Foundation (OAKDF). Pakistanis such as Khan told me the drones are not only seen as unjust, but also as an act of American cowardliness (the pilotless planes are maneuvered with a joystick thousands of miles away) and imperial arrogance (nobody provides any justification, recourse, or reparations to the victims of the drone attacks). A recent public opinion poll sponsored by the New America Foundation and conducted in Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun tribal areas in July confirms that U.S. drone strikes are deeply unpopular and likely to become even more unpopular.
True, the U.S. military is also trying to show its softer side by spending an estimated $216.5 million on flood aid and dispatching some 26 helicopters to evacuate trapped villagers throughout the rugged mountains and the Indus valley. From a strategic standpoint, the Americans hope their humanitarian cargo will change what another recent poll revealed: about 60 percent of Pakistanis view Americans as the enemy. However, America’s decision to drop food parcels from helicopters is not likely to wash away its history of propping up Pakistan’s dictators and deploying unmanned drones. Over and over again, Pakistanis told me that America’s foreign policy breeds resentment, fails to address the causes of extremism, and simply creates more anti-American militants. Mumtaz Tanoli of OAKDF says terrorism is rooted in the growing divide between the haves and have-nots. “The people are impatient with unemployment, poverty, injustice, and inequality,” he says. “The growing disparities, poverty and desperation are the roots of terrorism . . . Here, the opportunities are only for those with money or inroads in society and the rest feel poor and frustrated.” Tanoli left his job as a translator for USAID to work with OAKDF — a decision that cost him the coveted opportunity to obtain a U.S. green card and also slashed his salary by 90 percent. He says his decision was partly based on the sadness and uneasiness he felt while watching his USAID colleagues live opulently and wastefully. “The Americans were buying fancy waterbeds, but the locals had nothing,” he said. “How can you win people to your side that way?” Tanoli adds that the drones are only heightening sympathy for groups that fashion themselves as righteous underdogs standing up to American imperialism.
In a story that has received almost no attention in the United States, the U.S. military has infuriated the Pakistani public by allegedly breaching the Indus River and flooding a Pakistani village in order to protect a strategic airstrip used to launch unmanned drone attacks. Two prominent Pakistanis, Feryal Ali Gauhar — a human rights activist — and Ali Sethi — an author — have independently drawn attention to such reports. Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali similarly alleged that the Indus river embankments in upper Sindh was covertly breached to save the US-run Shahbaz Airbase at the expense of heavily populated Jaffarabad and adjoining districts. “I believe there was American pressure on the authorities to safeguard the Shahbaz airbase,” he told Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper. Many Pakistanis also believe that U.S. forces supervising an airbase in the Jacobabad district of Sindh province denied permission for the airstrip to be used to deliver much-needed relief to submerged areas where 700,000 people were trapped. And according to the Guardian, U.S. soldiers in Chinook helicopters are generating additional ill-will during relief missions by donning helmets with patches that commemorate their fellow soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that are regarded as morally offensive in Pakistan as in much of the world.
Overall, the U.S. quest for the “hearts and minds” of Pakistanis seems like a dismal failure. Pakistan’s own government hasn’t fared much better; recent polls show that Pakistanis’ disapproval of President Zardari is at an all time high given his abysmally slow response in the days following the torrential rains. Some pundits have referred to the Great Flood of 2010 as “Zardari’s Hurricane Katrina,” especially after he was photographed lounging at his 16th century Norman chateau as 20% of his country was sinking. As the Pakistani commentator Tariq Ali notes, Pakistan’s ruling elite have failed to construct a social infrastructure for its people over the last 60 years and this failure has fostered widespread frustration. According to the UN Development Program’s 2009 Human Development Index, over a third of Pakistanis live in poverty, a situation comparable to Rwanda.
The hard hit northern regions of Pakistan are likely to provide fertile ground for rogue groups eager to exploit the flood tragedy to gain new sympathizers. These groups will probably make considerable inroads into society since the Pakistani government is seen as a lame duck and the U.S. is regarded as a foreign aggressor. However, as Rashida Dohad of OAKDF notes, rural Pakistanis are rational actors, not marionettes of extremist groups. “The people are vulnerable and desperate but they realize that [extremists] who help them still have an agenda,” she says. Instead of forcing rural Pakistanis to choose between lives of poverty or allegiances with intolerant groups, OAKDF offers an avenue for reengaging in the political process and demanding that their government meets people’s basic human rights. The organization is asking the tough but important questions in wake of the flood: Will the Pakistani government subsidize food now that prices have skyrocketed? Will political leaders vote to levy a flood-relief tax on the wealthy to help rebuild the demolished homes of the poor? Will Pakistanis insist their government stops marching in step with the neoliberal dictates of the IMF and incurring more debilitating debt? Will political leaders actually invest in Pakistan's infrastructure and reject bribes to rebuild bridges with sand rather than cement? Will the international community drop Pakistan’s debt, especially in light of Oxfam’s recent observation that the country is spending twice as much paying off debt than it receives in flood aid? Will the U.S. reevaluate its foreign policy and follow China’s example of investing in the country’s infrastructure? Will ordinary Pakistani and American citizens collaborate to build a robust peace movement that addresses questions of both economic and political justice – a movement that will force their governments to invest less in militaries and more in people?