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The image game for America

30 September, 2010

By Kamila Hyat


The pictures of US Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke somewhat self-consciously throwing flowers and laying a sheet on a Sufi shrine in Multan two weeks ago, accompanied by the Pakistan foreign minister and a bevy of other US officials -- are, to put it mildly, strange.

We cannot believe that the tough-talking Mr Holbrooke has suddenly discovered an interest in Islam or the traditions that link people, emotionally and spiritually, to shrines.

The exercise was clearly intended as a kind of media stunt -- designed to demonstrate sympathy for a particular brand of Islam and a willingness to show some kind of unity with local culture. It is questionable what purpose this will serve. The obviously `staged` nature of the exercise will not fool anyone.

The people of Pakistan may suffer from many problems. But they are not dumb. In fact the sheet-laying excercise by American officials, trying -- it must be said -- to look as earnest as possible could even backfire and put people off Sufism that Washington appears to have taken upon itself to promote in a region where it has survived without much help from the outside world for hundreds of years.

The little charade in Multan will probably serve no useful purpose. However the fact it was enacted demonstrates a growing desperation of the US to gain a toe-hold of support in a country where it continues to be maligned. To this end, representatives of the US government have been busily calling on journalists, social activists and others with influence seeking advice on how they can expand their popular appeal in the country.

Most of those they meet are too polite to suggest that in realistic terms this can only happen with a US pull-out from a region where its presence has, since 1979, brought little but bad news, very bad news and even worse news in one form or the other. People will not forget this easily.

We have after all lived for decades under the dictators foisted upon us by America and suffered the consequences of all kinds of other self-serving strategies.

The latest insistence by US officials that, outside Khyber-Paktunkhwa and the FATA areas -- where exemption has been granted -- the US logo appear on items distributed for flood relief and acquired through US donations, will also probably serve little purpose.

International aid agencies, even in Sindh where it is accepted that the threat of a negative reaction to aid from the US is more limited than further north, have in most cases been assiduously removing the flag symbols and logos. Some say they do not wish to create trouble by using them. American aid groups are among these.

Mr Holbrooke believes this is preventing the US being credited for assistance -- while countries running relief camps in various parts of the country, including Saudi Arabia, China, Iran and local anti-US groups such as the Jamaate-Islami seem to be doing a better job of winning the hearts and minds the US seeks.

Somewhat like the Sufi-shrine trip, the whole thing is irrelevant. People in Dadu, in Bhan Saeedabad, in Muzaffargarh and elsewhere are really not especially concerned about where the aid is coming from. Their priority is simply to obtain the food, the clean water, the shelter and the medicines they so desperately need.

For the US, there are no immediate ways to change a mindset created over decades -- short of an immediate pull-out from the region. This, we all know, is not likely to happen and given the complex nature of the Taliban threat some of us would ask if it is even desirable right now.

The hatred and mistrust for the US is buoyed on by many factors. In the southern Punjab, where Mr Holbrooke visited the shrine for a photo opportunity beamed around the world, many sinister developments continue in the very shadows of the buildings created in memory of the peaceful Sufi preachers of the past.

Radical clerics, some who have established links with powerful landowners or challenge their hold over feudal fiefdoms, continue to convey messages that attack both the government and Washington. With little evidence, bomb attacks are blamed on Blackwater -- and worst of all the obscurantist messages act to distort thinking, creating sectarian hatred where none has existed and encouraging violence by handing over guns to young men who have no jobs, no opportunities and no hope in life. The weapons offer them a sense of empowerment and a purpose to move towards.

The tale of Ajmal Kasab, now in an Indian Jail, is one we should all study to understand how the ordinary, but aimless young men we see across the Punjab, and elsewhere too, can be converted under expert guidance into ruthless killers.

Washington must recognise that, no matter how great its zeal and how ardent its new-found desire to make friends or improve its image in the country, there are no shortcuts and no means to scramble up what is a steep and very slippery hillside. Children know that people who hand out sweets may not necessarily be their friends. The opposite may in fact be the case.

The US must realise its best hope of reaching the goal it has set out is by helping Pakistan recover from the problems created in part by its own policies. Help for development and education, as laid down in the Kerry-Lugar Bill, would do no harm -- provided of course the money lands up in the right place. There has been some doubt expressed on this count in the US Senate.

Most important of all is the need to help Pakistan regain -- or perhaps gain for the first time in its history -- some sense of sovereignty. Only when people have control over their lives and the right to live with dignity can they escape the messages of extremists who hold them back.

Empowerment could also play a crucial role in persuading their own government to do more to govern, and to grant them the confidence required to determine what kind of relationship they seek with other nations in the world.

 

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