Globe Newspaper Company,
IN THE DIALOGUE of nations, differing perceptions are the enemy of understanding and cooperation. Consider Pakistan and the United States in their relationship to Afghanistan. Americans say that Pakistan has been very cooperative arresting Al Qaeda suspects but exceedingly unhelpful in stopping the remnants of the Taliban from infiltrating across the border back into Afghanistan to thwart America's reconstruction efforts.
“This is simply unacceptable,” America's new ambassador in Kabul, Salmay Khalilzad, has been telling reporters. “Al Qaeda and the Taliban are both important. It is not enough to take action against one and not the other.” Afghanistan's transitional president, Hamid Karzai, is even more outspoken. “Pakistan wants a weakness here,” he told recent visitors.
When Americans hear Taliban they think of Al Qaeda, with little to choose between them. When Pakistanis think of the Taliban they think first of the Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, who also dominate Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. While not all Pashtuns are Taliban, almost all Taliban are Pashtuns, not to be lumped with the foreign Arabs who run Al Qaeda. The residual Pashtun support for the Taliban today is increasingly ethnic rather than ideological. And there are political consequences to getting rough with Pashtuns but almost none to handing over Al Qaeda renegades to the Americans.
When Americans think of the growing insurgency along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, they think it all the fault of the Taliban. The Pakistanis, however, blame it on Afghanistan's failure at national reconciliation, which has left the Pashtuns feeling out of power in a land where traditionally they ruled.
When Americans think of a border, they think of a line that ought to be supervised. When Pakistanis think of their northwestern frontier they think of a legacy of a British colonial cartographer who drew the line right through the Pashtun homeland, leaving half on the Afghan side and half in what is now Pakistan. Pashtuns have always wandered back and forth without a passport.
Pakistanis think, too, of the tribal territories, another legacy of the British, in which the government in Islamabad has limited authority. Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf told me a year ago he was going to end this separate status, but he has not yet done so. I can understand why. Twenty years ago I took a train to the top of the Khyber Pass and noticed that armed men in the tribal territories didn't present a ticket. When I asked one why, he patted his rifle and said: “This is my ticket.”
When Americans talk about a long-term commitment, Pakistanis see betrayal right around the corner and an American pullout that will leave them holding the Afghan bag, as happened after the Soviets withdrew. Musharraf has just barely survived two assassination attempts, and his decision to join in the American war against terror is not popular in much of Pakistan. I heard Pakistan's foreign secretary say that most Pakistanis thought they were being “used” by the Americans and that our foreign aid was “chicken feed.” There are those in the Pakistani military and intelligence services who see a need to hedge Pakistan's bets.
Recently Musharraf spoke about perceptions to the people of the frontier, saying that Pakistan was seen abroad as undemocratic, as helping to spread nuclear weapons, as a recruiting ground for violent Islamic militants, and as a haven for crossborder terrorists. He said that these perceptions might not all be correct, but he indicated that there might be some truth to them and that Pakistan would have to change. He spoke of perceptions as a minefield through which Pakistan would have to navigate.
Pakistan itself is a minefield for the United States, and Afghanistan is important to both countries. It is time to talk to the Pakistanis quietly and unthreateningly to convince them that the United States recognizes the primacy of Pakistan's strategic interests in Afghanistan and the political realities on the frontier.
The United States increasingly has to try to make distinctions between Taliban who can never be won over and those who can. Pakistan needs to be convinced that it does not need Pashtun “contras” as a hedge against US inconstancy. America needs to show Pakistanis that there is more in it for them to be an American ally by relaxing restrictions against importing their textiles and doing more to bring jobs and prosperity to the frontier in order to give youths something to think about other than jihad. Most of all, we have to narrow the conflicting perceptions that each holds of the other if this delicate moment of transition and change is going to mean change for the better.
H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.