Hassan Abbas titled his Dec. 21 article in Foreign Affairs, “How Obama Can Fix the U.S-Pakistan Relationship.” H.D.S Greenway similarly wrote a Dec. 6 article in the Boston Globe on the same issue, “Losing Pakistan.” The implication of both articles is that the onus for “fixing” the relationship lies with U.S policy. If only the U.S does X or Y, then suddenly everything will be fine and dandy.
Pakistan, in the view of these writers, bears no responsibility. The fact that the country paid for and supported the Taliban in the 1990s; subsequently secretly developed nuclear weapons; allowed Osama Bin Laden to live in a military town for almost a decade; and keeps organizations like the Haqqani network, which kill American soldiers, close to its Intelligence Agency (ISI)—none of this is Pakistan’s fault. How America could have fixed each of these duplicities, each of these overt policies that promotes or supports terror, is not clear.
In order to understand how to read comments on the Pakistani relationship, one must apply what I have come to call the “Raymond David Litmus Test.” Raymond Davis, according to the New York Times, was a CIA contractor living in Afghanistan. On Jan. 27, 2011 he was driving in Lahore when two men on a motorcycle pulled up in front of his car at a traffic light. One of them had a pistol. Davis reached for an unlicensed Glock 9mm that he carried, raised the weapon and fired several shots through his windshield, killing one of the men. The second man, Faheem Shamshad was taken to hospital, where he died. Those are the undisputed facts.
Davis claimed that the men had tailed him and that he feared for his life and shot the men after they pulled out guns. In order to back up his story, Davis exited his vehicle and photographed the men before attempting to flee the scene. Police confirmed that Faizan Haider, one of the men Davis killed, had a criminal record for involvement in “banditry.”
The Davis story provides a perfect context to understand media perceptions on Afghanistan precisely because of how it was misreported. Greenway writes, “From Pakistan’s point of view, what would Americans say if a Pakistani intelligence officer stepped out of his car in an American city and shot two Americans dead; took their photographs and sped away.” Nicholas Kristoff, writing in the New York Times, pondered in May of 2011, “I can’t help wondering if Raymond Davis, the American who was arrested by Pakistanis after shooting people in Lahore while apparently on a C.I.A. operation, was somehow involved in this operation to confirm bin Laden’s presence.”
Consider how the Davis incident has been rendered here; “shooting people” or “shot two Americans.” There is no context, no mention of the fact that the men he shot were armed and that it is not atypical for an assassination team to ride on a motorcycle in a pair, with the passenger being the shooter. Greenway’s question about how America would feel is pertinent. To be sure, Americans would be outraged if a foreigner with a diplomatic passport gunned down two innocent Americans. If it turned out, however, that the Americans had criminal records and were armed and chasing the foreigner, the public would likely understand the story differently.
The Davis issue remains relevant because it forms part of the larger pattern of how commentators consistently shade descriptions of how the Pakistani relationship with America works. In other places, the relationship is characterized as one where “Pakistan has lost more soldiers fighting the Taliban than the U.S.” Sometimes we are told that the U.S supported Pakistani dictators, such as Zia al-Haq and Pervez Musharraf, and this is the reason the Pakistanis distrust America. In other versions it turns out that Pakistan “helped” America defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan and then was “left holding the bag” when America was no longer interested in Afghanistan. Pakistan is often portrayed as being in a “dysfunctional marriage” with the U.S. or being a “daughter in-law” of the U.S.
None of this is accurate. Pakistan entered into a relationship of convenience with the U.S in the 1970s when the U.S. was working to cultivate China as another ally of convenience against Soviet influence. Later, the U.S. agreed to support Pakistani funding of Islamist Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, even when Pakistan insisted that all of the American money and munitions be made to seem as if they were only coming through the ISI. America dealt with Pakistan’s dictators and democratically elected leaders equally well.
Whatever casualties Pakistan suffered fighting its own Taliban is a problem of its own making; it helped create the Taliban, now it must fight them. Lastly, Pakistan’s people hate America with a passion unmatched almost anywhere in the world. There is no relationship to “fix.”
Seth J. Frantzman is a writer, journalist and scholar residing in Jerusalem.