WASHINGTON: The anger and desperation of the displaced people and the growing public outrage over civilian casualties in drone attacks show that the US strategy for fighting insurgency in Pakistan is not working, warns a key lawmaker.
Congressman Gary Ackerman, who chairs the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, also warned that the US military and economic might could influence government policies but cannot change ground realities.
During a congressional review of US policies for South Asia, another lawmaker, Edward Royce, a California Republican, noted that excessive restrictions placed in a house bill for tripling US aid to Pakistan would stifle efforts to increase trade between the United States and Pakistan.
‘The anger and desperation of this population should give us pause if the continued growing public outrage about civilian casualties caused by our drone strikes was not enough,’ said Congressman Ackerman while referring to more than two million people displaced during the Swat offensive.
‘What is becoming clear is that while our own understanding of regional, security, ethnic and tribal dynamics is growing, so, too, is the popular backlash against the methods we’ve been using.’
Although Mr Ackerman strongly backed using force to defeat the extremists, he also underlined the need for changing the US strategy.
‘Something needs to change. Albert Einstein’s warning holds true today: We can’t solve our problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.’
Mr Ackerman also acknowledged that before 9/11 the United States did not have a ‘sustained, deep or serious’ commitment to either Afghanistan or Pakistan. ‘We used them and they used us, and we assumed their dysfunctional governments and failing economies were problems of little consequence to us,’ he said.
Congressman Royce pointed out that an administration-backed move to establish Reconstruction Opportunity Zones in Afghanistan and Pakistan could be useful in improving economic conditions in the troubled regions of those countries.
But ‘unfortunately, because of the way in which this legislation has been written in Congress – with the restrictions, with the burdensome requirements, I think that that legislation is not going to do anything to increase trade with Pakistan. And that trade with Pakistan right now should be an important goal.’
As the aid to Pakistan bill moves to conference with the Senate, Mr Royce urged both chambers of the US Congress to remove the clauses that were too restrictive. ‘This provision must be liberalised if it’s going to affect Pakistan,’ he said.
He then asked Robert Blake, the new Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs at the State Department, if he concurred with that judgment.
‘Sure,’ said Mr Blake, who appeared as the key witness before the panel.
The United States, Mr Blake said, was working more closely to knit Afghanistan and Pakistan with their neighbours and with their region and to open up foreign markets to their products.
The establishment of Reconstruction Opportunity Zones, he noted, would be an important step in stimulating economic growth in both countries and drawing people away from extremism.
Congressman Jim Costa, a California Democrat, said he believed that the ‘recent positive performance’ of the Pakistani government in the Dir and Swat valleys, was going to continue, notwithstanding the internal political differences between the Sharif brothers and President Zardari.
‘We’re very encouraged by the steps that President Zardari and his team have taken recently in Swat, in Buner and elsewhere. They’ve taken the fight to the Taliban, and that’s a very encouraging sign,’ said Mr Blake.
The offensive, he said, not only hurt the Taliban, it also had helped improve the Zardari government’s standing with their people. ‘And there’s much greater support now for the Zardari government, which, again, is a very positive sign,’ he added.
‘So as long as they continue to do that, as long as they continue to take concerted action, the United States will continue to support them.’
The State Department’s new pointsman for South Asia told the panel that a major new focus of the Obama administration ‘will be to dramatically increase economic assistance to – to help address a lot of the economic problems and also a lot of the governance problems that have plagued Pakistan.’
Congressman Ackerman noted that in a recent statement Pakistan’s army chief not only vowed to continue the military offensive but also said that the head of the Taliban organisation in Pakistan must be eliminated.
He wanted to know if the US administration believed the Pakistanis were serious and had the capacity to succeed.
‘I think there has been a turning point, sir, and we’re very encouraged by the progress that has been made in Swat valley,’ said Mr Blake. ‘Much more needs to be done still and I think they do have the capabilities to undertake that.’