May 2, 2009

Step Into the Light

Two weeks. Two weeks for the government of Pakistan to get its act together. Two weeks before the state collapses. Two weeks until American intervention. Or two weeks until nothing?

What exactly is going on in the White House and Pentagon? Obviously it’s not the American people's place to know - national security and everything - but any light would be greatly appreciated.

According to a Fox News report, CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus supposedly told Obama officials, “The Pakistanis have run out of excuses,” and that the next two weeks are, “critical to determining whether the Pakistani government will survive.”

Then it rained denial. State Department spokesman Robert Woods told reporters, “I don’t know where this two-week timeframe came from.” When pressed he repeated, “I’m not aware of any two-week timeline.”

The Fox News report could be inaccurate or blatantly false. Fox News may have its reasons for driving a wedge between Obama and the Pakistani government, or increasing the climate of fear in America.

But Mr. Woods’ statement rings hollow. He knows, or should have known, where the rumor of “this two-week timeframe came from” - from Fox News and General Petraeus - yet Petraeus wasn’t mentioned in the State Department briefing. If the rumor is untrue, it’s logical to think that Mr. Woods would site the false report and assure General Petraeus said no such thing.

Instead Mr. Woods meandered about how the Taliban is ruthless and must be stopped, how hard this will be, that there’s no time limit to fighting a war, and that it will take “a hundred and ten percent effort.” Obvious statements that avoided the reporter’s question.

In contrast, Pakistan’s American ambassador Husain Haqqani gave a thorough explanation. Haqqani said he spoke to General Petraeus and was told by him that nothing was said about a two week deadline. Haqqani also questioned the validity of Fox News, saying, “Even if he had given any such statement, it would have been covered by the world media and not by only Fox News.”

Mr. Woods should have given ambassador Haqqani’s statement. Haqqani said President Obama would clarify the issue, something he can’t do soon enough. Confusion between the American and Pakistani governments, and their peoples, runs deeper than the latest rumor mill.

Earlier in the week, Obama lamented Pakistan’s inability to, “deliver basic services for the majority of the people.” Whether a majority of Pakistanis lack “schools, healthcare, rule of law, a judicial system” is debatable. Obama may have been speaking about the tribal areas, not Pakistan as a whole.

This ambiguity is why his comments were interpreted by some Pakistanis as an insult to Pakistani President Asif Zardari, and criticized by those who think Pakistan isn’t comparable to Afghanistan. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani indirectly responded by saying his government has held power for a year, whereas America supported General Musharraf for over 8 years.

The naked message is that Pakistan deserves more time to correct its internal crisis before the thought of foreign intrusion is entertained. Security is deteriorating, but considering the chatter from Washington, real or rumor, and the American media blitz, it’s easy to imagine that Pakistan is feeling unjustly rushed, manipulated, and slandered.

Nor is Pakistan the only one who underestimated Taliban expansion. Only two months after Obama released his new Afghan strategy, the White Paper, a senior administration official admitted to The New York Times, “We’re no longer looking at how Pakistan could help Afghanistan. We’re looking at what we could do to help Pakistan get through [the Taliban emergency].”

Stones, meet glass house.

Icing the cake is speculation that the White House considers the Pakistani army to be more competent than the Zardari government. The Pakistani people do not need to hear this, especially with Musharraf on a come back tour proclaiming Pakistan needs him. Obama will likely play good cop, bad cop when Zardari visits the White House next week.

The boundary of national security is a constant battle. The American people can’t expect explicit details on foreign policy, but a legitimate argument can be made that they should know more than they do now. They need to know what the White House and Pentagon are candidly thinking about their strategy in Pakistan, because the effects will be felt by America as a whole.

Mixed messages are harming how Pakistan is treated. There is no advantage to keeping the American people in the dark or in confusing the Pakistani government and its people.

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