Pakistanis ponder: Why do Americans 'hate' them?

The country desperately needs a new narrative being honest about the mistakes their leaders have made

It wasn’t clear just who ‘they’ were — Muslims, Arabs or simply anyone who was not American. The easy answer that many Americans found comforting was equally vague: that ‘they’ were jealous of America’s wealth, opportunities, democracy and what have you.

But in this part of the world — in Pakistan, where I live, and in Afghanistan next door, from which the Sept. 11 attacks were directed — those who detested America were much more identifiable, and so were their reasons.

They were a small group of Islamic extremists who supported Al Qaeda; a larger group of students studying at madrasas, which had expanded rapidly since the 1980s; and young militants who had been empowered by years of support from Pakistan’s military intelligence services to fight against India in Kashmir. They were a tiny minority of Pakistan’s 150 million people at the time.

Now, with the US about to enter the 11th year of the longest war it has ever fought, far more of my neighbours in Pakistan have joined the list of America’s detractors. The wave of anti-Americanism is rising in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, even among many who once admired the United States, and the short reason for that is plain: the common resentment is that American plans to bring peace and development to Afghanistan have failed, the killing is still going on, and to excuse their failures Americans have now expanded the war into Pakistan, evoking what they did in the 1960s when the Vietnam war moved into Laos and Cambodia. Moreover, while Pakistanis die for an American war, Washington has given favoured deals to Pakistan’s archenemy, India. So goes the argument.

The more belligerent detractors of America will tell you that Americans are imperialists who hate Islam, and that Americans’ so-called civilising instincts have nothing to do with democracy or human rights. A more politically attuned attitude is that the detractor doesn’t hate Americans, just the policies that American leaders pursue.

But both groups feel trapped: Afghanistan is still caught up in war, and my country is on the brink of meltdown. And so now there is something beyond just disliking America. We have begun to ask the question of 9/11 in reverse: why do Americans hate us so much ?

Ten years is a long time to be at war, and to be faced with a daily threat of terrorist attacks. It is a long time spent in an unequal alliance in which the battle gets only more arduous and divisive, especially for the weaker partner on whose soil the battle is playing out.

Under such long strain, resentments about intrusions, miscalculations and feckless performance make a leap to an assumption: that Americans must hate Pakistanis because they would otherwise never treat them so carelessly, speak so badly of them, or distrust them so much.

Perhaps the greatest promise made after Sept. 11 by president George W Bush and the British prime minister, Tony Blair, was that the west would no longer tolerate failed and failing states or extremism. Today there are more failed states than ever; Al Qaeda’s message has spread to Europe, Africa and the American mainland; and every religion and culture is producing its own extremists, whether in sympathy with Islamism or in reaction to it (witness the recent massacre in Norway).

Attention diversion
Famine, hunger, poverty and economic failure have increased beyond measure, at least in this corner of the world, where the Sept. 11 plans were hatched, while climate change has set off enormous floods and drought brings untold misery to millions in unexpected places. The latter is not the fault of Sept. 11, but in the minds of many the catastrophes we face stem from America’s wars and the diversion of America’s attention from truly universal problems. In this, America, too, is a victim of its wars and the global changes it has not addressed.

A recent Congressional report says the United States has wasted at least $31 billion in the awarding of contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in Pakistan, people see no lasting economic benefit from the $20 billion Washington has spent there since 2001. It has bought a lot of military equipment, but no dam or university or electric power plant.

The Pakistani military benefited from those purchases, but it thought it was never consulted sufficiently by the US and was not considered a true ally. Acting on those assumptions, it created its own safeguards by backing both president Bush and the resurgent Taliban insurgency, and it continued in that vein after president Obama took over.

There is a flip side to this coin of anti-Americanism, of course. The leaders of both Afghanistan and Pakistan have found it convenient to play it for political survival or to explain away their own lapses. Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, has become a master at spilling tears to describe the latest American perfidy, while failing to fight corruption or provide a modicum of good governance.

Similarly, Pakistan’s army and intelligence directorate regularly brief the media and politicians on the long sequences of American betrayals, Washington’s love for India and how Pakistan was trapped in this relationship. These are false narratives — dry tinder for the question ‘Why do Americans hate us?’ — but they have now seeped into the national psyche, the media and the political debate, and countering them is not easy.

That is because the army’s national security objectives, which many Pakistanis still accept as a matter of national identity, are rooted in the last century, rather than in what is needed today. They decree that the army must maintain a permanent state of enmity with India; a controlling influence in Afghanistan and the deployment of Islamic extremists or non-state actors as a tool of foreign policy in the region; and that it must command a lion’s share of the national budget alongside its control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

American attempts to change this course with either carrots or sticks are rebuffed, while the civilian government cowers in the background, not wanting to get trampled by the two bull elephants of American and Pakistani military will. Meanwhile the voices of extremism translate anti-Americanism into denunciations of Americans’ own treasured ideals: democracy, liberalism, tolerance and women’s rights. These days, all are pronounced western or American concepts, and dismissed.

Pakistanis desperately need a new narrative — one that is honest about the mistakes their leaders have made and continue to make. But where is the leadership to tell this story as it should be told? The military gets away with its antiquated thinking because nobody is offering an alternative. And without one, nothing will improve for a long time, because the American and Pakistani governments are in a sense mirror images of each other.

Since the death last year of Richard C Holbrooke, who was devoted to creating a political strategy to underpin American policy-making, but whom President Obama seemed to ignore, there has been no American political strategy for Pakistan or Afghanistan. After 10 years, it should be clear that the wars in this region cannot be won purely by military force, nor should policy making be left to the generals. The questions about who hates whom will become only more difficult to resolve until the warfare ends and national healing begins.

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