September 29, 2010

Drones Drown Out US Aid

Sporting a hat that read “USAID: From The American People” as he toured two US-funded relief camps, Richard Holbrooke insisted that support to Pakistani flood victims is focused on saving lives. But winning “hearts and minds” or relieving the Pakistani military for new missions against the TTP and al-Qaeda can’t be far behind.

"Our country has donated the most money and the most helicopters," America’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan said in one of his many remarks to highlight US contributions. “We do it through the international organizations, so it may not be as visible, but it is very big.”

Holbrooke had pointed out these facts after reaching the conclusion that America still isn’t receiving proper credit for aiding Pakistanis in their darkest hour. But while Pakistanis remain leery of US support after so many years of duplicity, pervasive anti-Americanism isn’t totally responsible for Holbrooke’s latest PR hurdle - he’s also contending with a particularly intense drone campaign. No matter how much the Pentagon plasters its website with flood updates, US, international, and Pakistani media is all covered with drones and questions regarding their legality, precision, and effectiveness.

The Dawn’s Amna Khalique conclusively appraised Washington’s “game of Whack-a-Mole.”

And without answers the information void naturally fills with doubt and fear. Now hot-pursuit has been added to the mix, further entangling drones in the wider debate on sovereignty. To be sure, elements within Pakistan support drones and demand that Islamabad cut all ties with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. But no one is talking about US aid.

Some wounds are self-inflicted on Holbrooke’s part, documented in another drone tally by Brian Ehrenpreis for Counterpunch. Asked of the Predator and Reaper’s precision by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Holbrooke replied, "It's such a precise weapon, the Predator, that if they were aiming at your producers over there, you and I could continue our conversation. It’s very very small; does that not appeal to you, that idea?”

Ehrenpreis, like Khalique, goes on to argue that minimizing civilian casualties doesn’t relieve drones of their scrutiny. Though their use does appeal to some Pakistanis, the language from its media and government indicates that the majority still find drones more or less revolting.

21 drone strikes over the last month have thus blocked any possibility of widespread awareness of US aid to Pakistan. They’ve consumed the print space of media organizations and attention of pundits, while military escalation solidifies the impression that Washington is trying to distract from ongoing drone strikes. And if Pakistan’s floods ultimately overwhelm Islamabad and the international community, US aid could be swept away in the process, isolated memories of the thankful lost in a larger sea of despair.

While the drones continue their assault.

Holbrooke’s double-sided agenda is nothing unusual, nor are his struggling efforts to win Pakistani hearts and minds. US aid cannot hide an increase in bombings - Pakistanis notice. And whether or not al-Qaeda was actually plotting a concrete attack against a European target, this news is designed to justify past and future operations, including potential cross-boarder raids by NATO forces and CIA-funded Afghan commandos. The fact that US officials released their motive demonstrates the backlash’s potency.

In related events, the same reason why Holbrooke attracts so many skeptics in Pakistani can be found in Afghanistan, where he issued a ringing endorsement for the recent parliamentary election. At a time when many Afghans are renewing doubts of the outcome and their government’s credibility, US and UN officials have bolstered Kabul officials to weather another fraud-plagued election.

“I would draw no conclusions about the outcome in the Western sense that one party won or there will have to be a coalition of three parties,” Holbrooke explained. “You can't apply any of that to Afghanistan. Afghan people don't get enough credit for voting under these circumstances.”

But he either misses or ignores the point. Given parliament’s ineffectiveness, which party gained the most votes becomes less significant than the election’s perception in relation to Hamid Karzai’s government. A fraudulent vote further gnaws away at Afghanistan’s poor representation and Karzai's dipping approval, negatively impacting US strategy. Yet Western officials, so confident of the vote, have resorted to the argument that the elections are a success for being held at all.

Steffan de Mistura, U.N. special representative to Afghanistan, recently wrote in an election report, "One must not forget that Afghanistan is still a country in conflict. The fact that elections took place at all, not least in such close succession and during comparatively a more volatile period, is an accomplishment in itself."

U.S. Ambassador Susan E. Rice welcomed the U.N. envoy's report, calling the elections an "important, step toward a stronger, more stable Afghanistan."

But Washington is more worried than it publicly lets on. Holbrooke cryptically mused, “It is not moving as fast as it should. One of the iron laws of Afghanistan, it seems to me, is that things move more slowly than people say they will. The issue isn't 'Are you behind schedule?' ... The issue is 'Are you moving forward?'"

A drop in voter turnout and chronic instability suggests no. Bruce Riedel, ex-CIA official and key supporter of Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan found two factors “troubling”: continual insecurity and the decrease in voter turnout from about 6 million in the last election to about 3.6 million. And with the election already postponed from May to September, “an accomplishment in themselves” suggests a deteriorating security and political environment.

"While violence seems to have been less in this election than in August 2009, some of that is because 20 percent of polling stations were closed and that's also not a good sign.”

It is this duplicity that cannot be trusted - that Pakistanis despise. Spinning a positive election out of another political quagmire, highlighting US aid while enthusiastically justifying Predators as they pound North Waziristan.

As a messenger of Washington, Holbrooke’s message will never reach the masses without clarity.

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