Hubris, and a Hiccup

Hubris, and a Hiccup

By David Ignatius - October 11, 2009

WASHINGTON -- It's a classic example of the law of unintended consequences: Congress triples its assistance to Pakistan as part of a deepening strategic relationship. But members of Congress, always eager to tell other countries what to do, insert conditions that Pakistanis find insulting. As a result, rather than welcoming American aid and friendship, Pakistanis are indignant at U.S. meddling.

When I was in Islamabad a week ago, the Pakistani press was dripping with anti-American outrage. And this week, the Pakistani military and parliament were both protesting U.S. interference. All this in response to legislation that was meant to symbolize U.S. support for Islamabad's growing firmness in fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Strangely, this uproar seems to have taken the Obama administration by surprise, with senior officials initially denouncing as inaccurate a Tuesday New York Times story that reported Pakistani anger and opposition to the bill. Richard Holbrooke, the administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, should have seen this one coming.

The trigger for this latest flap with Islamabad is something known as the Kerry-Lugar bill, named for its Senate co-sponsors, John Kerry, D-Mass., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind. It should more properly be known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, since the language that has peeved the Pakistanis mostly came from the House Foreign Affairs Committee chaired by Rep. Howard Berman of California.

Some of the popular anger in Islamabad is being manipulated by the Pakistani military, which should know better than to toss a match in the dry tinder of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. And some of it, frankly, is a sign of Pakistani political immaturity. But the larger point is that this hiccup in the relationship is unnecessary. It's a product of gratuitous language that was written into the legislation despite warnings that it would trigger just this sort of reaction.

The finger-wagging conditions in the bill illustrate a special form of American hubris. U.S. politicians become so accustomed to lecturing others that they lose sight of how their words will be read in foreign capitals, and how legislative boilerplate will play on foreign insecurities and anxieties. That's the foreigners' problem, you might say. But when a few gratuitous phrases can destabilize relations with our most important ally against al-Qaeda, then it's our problem, too.

It's useful to trace how this imbroglio developed, for it is largely a self-inflicted wound. Back in 2008, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee began drafting a bill that was aimed at increasing non-military assistance and, in the process, encouraging Pakistan's fledging civilian government. The heart of the bill was a big increase in civilian aid, boosting it from the $400 million range to $1.5 billion annually for five years. That bill finally cleared the Senate and House last month.

The Senate version included modest conditions on U.S. military aid to Pakistan, requiring that before money was delivered the secretary of state must certify that Pakistan's security forces were not "materially interfering" in politics and were making "concerted efforts" to curb the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Lashkar-e-Taiba group believed responsible for the Mumbai terrorist attack. That didn't prompt any backlash in Pakistan.

The conditions in the House bill were much harsher, and the final bill passed by Congress had the tone of a diktat. Kerry tried to soften the House language but sharp words remained: Pakistan wouldn't get military aid unless it "demonstrated a sustained commitment" against terrorism by showing it was "ceasing support" to terrorist groups and "dismantling terrorist bases" in Quetta and Muridke (where Lashkar-e-Taiba operates).

Although Pakistan's intelligence service has had past contacts with these groups, this public congressional scolding was guaranteed to upset Pakistani military and intelligence officers. They argue that their soldiers are dying in the fight against the Taliban and other extremist groups, and that they don't need hectoring from Congress.

The Pakistani side is hardly blameless. The Pakistani military is peeved that the bill leans toward a civilian government it doesn't fully trust. It's possible, too, that Pakistani intelligence chiefs still are playing a double game with the terrorists. But that's hard to square with their actions in recent months -- their successful assault on the Taliban in the Swat Valley and their planned offensive in Waziristan.

The only benefit I can see here is a perverse one: It may actually be easier for the Pakistani military to battle the Taliban and al-Qaeda if it's seen by the public as standing up defiantly to American pressure. There's no better cover for a pro-American policy, after all, than bashing Uncle Sam.

Copyright 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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