October 30, 2009

Do More

She had a fair chance. Despite threatening the media and announcing her own propaganda tour, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was still well-received by the inquisitive Pakistani public. Not by everyone, but people want answers and Clinton had them.

She had every opportunity and still failed to deliver.

During an engagement with students, who the AP described as, “not hostile, but showing a strong sense of doubt that the U.S. can be a reliable and trusted partner for Pakistan,” one woman stepped to the microphone.

“What guarantee," the woman asked, "can Americans give Pakistan that we can now trust you — not you but, like, the Americans this time — of your sincerity and that you guys are not going to betray us like the Americans did in the past when they wanted to destabilize the Russians?"

Clinton responded that the question was "fair criticism, but that, “It's difficult to go forward if we're always looking in the rearview mirror. We are now at a point where we can chart a different course.”

Afterwards Shanze’ Sarfraz Cheema responded in an e-mail that Clinton, “is well-spoken and did not say anything bad, but as she was giving diplomatic answers, it did not satisfy my curiosity, and many of the students I talked to felt the same way. Most of the Pakistanis like the American [people], but they do not like the American government; and they don’t trust them because of the past. Winning the trust back is next to impossible.”

Cheema had company. Clinton left a wake of dissatisfaction across Pakistan from the big (al-Qaeda) to the small (traffic jams).

“Al-Qaeda has had safe haven in Pakistan since 2002,” she responded during a press briefing. “I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn't get them if they really wanted to. Maybe that's the case. Maybe they're not gettable. I don't know."

Her actions are nearly inconceivable because her intentions were spiteful, not some random response, and even so Clinton doesn’t get any do-overs. Another US official said Clinton's comments weren’t prepared, saying, “You've got to remember, she was a senator from New York on 9/11.”

Octopus Mountain finds it hard to believe she spent 15 hours prepping on a plane and wasn’t ready to deploy those exact lines. The truth of her statement is a separate question, and a valid one. But she intentionally stepped on the Pakistani government for its inaction against the “Quetta Shura” and TTP commanders that escaped the wrath in Waziristan, along with al-Qaeda.

And Clinton set herself up for higher failure. Trumpeting her intentions immediately raised the bar, stakes, scrutiny, emotions, reward, and fall. She came to bear peace and smile, to reflect on US errors, to listen and repair decades of damage. To go nuclear on a charm offensive isn’t good cop, bad cop, but failure to execute the mission.

“How can the U.S. at this time be so insensitive for Mrs. Clinton to speak out in public in this way?" asked a Pakistani government official. "These remarks suggest a very high degree of insensitivity."

“If we knew where Al Qaeda’s leaders were, or if we had meaningful intelligence on their whereabouts shared with us, we would act against them,” another senior official said.

Though Clinton told Pakistani journalists in Lahore, “I don’t believe in dancing around difficult issues,” the end of her tour seems to have answered only one question: that America hasn’t changed its behavior to the degree advertised by the government. al-Qaeda was the only answer she gave all day.

Beyond brushing off Mr. Cheema, Clinton repeatedly declined to comment on drone attacks, only retorting, “there is a war going on,” and reciting her al-Qaeda line again. When asked why Pakistan seemed to be the only country fighting against terrorism, Clinton noted countries like Indonesia and the Philippines are fighting al-Qaeda, But America didn’t entice Russia in any country except Afghanistan.

And war is a gift that keeps on giving.

Special envoy Richard Holbrooke revealed “we want to encourage them” in South Wazirstan, as Clinton spent an afternoon with Army Chief General Parvez Kayani. He's being modest. America is hoping the Pakistani army turns north once its finished in the south, then east. And west actually - America wants the border sealed too. First Kerry-Lugar, then al-Qaeda, now more beats of the drum.

Pakistanis know Clinton’s true intentions by heart - “do more” - a message she spread back in public. When asked about Waziristan, she insisted that inaction against the TTP will “cede ground to the terrorists. If you want to see your territory shrink, that's your choice." She added that no, this was not a choice.

We believe Clinton got a fair chance but fell by her own hand, not the rest of her controversy. The US is hunting al-Qaeda to the death and is seeking, at least on the surface, improved relations with Pakistan. Drones are secretly approved by the Pakistani government, meaning Clinton is hovering on the edge of hypocrisy.

But over in Afghanistan, where America is falling back to 10 population centers, where the roads are no longer safe, territory is falling to the Taliban. Judging by reports of “McChrystal light” and hybrids, President Obama is looking at ceding territory. He won’t admit it, but a middle plan by definition attempts to engage the Taliban and thus accepts a certain level of influence, including over land.

Secretary Clinton shouldn’t have raised the scare of ceding territory when President Obama is risking the same outcome. Yet every layer of Pakistani society demands that Obama devise a strategy and exit for Afghanistan, the cause of their own war.

With little show in Clinton's trip, Holbrooke was forced to tell the Pakistani people, ‘I think this is one of the most important trips she has made since she became Secretary of State and I think the whole world will be watching. And I want to stress that she comes to Pakistan as a friend, not with conditions but with support for the democratically elected government and the people of Pakistan.”

Clinton must not have stressed that sufficiently - maybe she should have done more.

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