Something rather strange was evident from the reports of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit last week to Pakistan. The articles suggest that her visit was not met with garlands and roses, but howls of protest and bitterness. What happened to the much-vaunted bonhomie of 'Amerika-Pakistan Bhai- Bhai"?
In a nutshell, reality struck and realpolitik happened. As President Obama mulls over the request for 40,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to fight what is increasingly turning out to be an unwinnable counter-insurgency and guerrilla war, recent press articles have been highlighting the strain that this has placed on the US-Pak relationship, with barely any pious lip-service to the usual 'Indo-Pak rivalry' pablum.
Now is the time for plain-speaking. Mrs.Clinton was never one to mince words:
While U.S. officials have said they believe Osama bin Laden and senior lieutenants have been hiding in the rugged terrain along the border with Afghanistan, Clinton's unusually blunt comments went further as she suggested that Pakistan's government has done too little to act against al-Qaida's top echelon."
""With the country reeling from Wednesday's devastating bombing that killed at least 105 people in Peshawar, Clinton also engaged in an intense give-and-take with students at the Government College of Lahore. She insisted that inaction by the government would have ceded ground to terrorists.
"If you want to see your territory shrink, that's your choice," she said, adding that she believed it would be a bad choice.
Richard Holbrooke, the special U.S. representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, told reporters that Clinton planned to meet late Thursday with the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to get an update on the offensive that began Oct. 17 against Taliban forces in a portion of the tribal areas near the Afghan border."
The shrinkage of effective control of the Pak-Afghan border has been a problem dating back farther in time than any of the controlling interests in the area care to remember. Nobody rules those zones, no country can claim complete sovereign control over them, just the warring tribal factions that have made their homes there for the last few centuries.
The Pakistani military has been happy to play along with the tribes when it suits, or encourage the decimation of inconvenient leaders and 'collateral damages' indirectly through the numerous drone airstrikes run by the US. It increases the hatred of the US, in that approximately a third of those killed are civilians, per some reports. The Taliban and AlQaeda inflate the numbers of the innnocents, the better to encourage fresh recruits. A fairly detailed analysis of how Pakistan pulls the punches is available here on a post by Manoj Joshi (Ruchira's brother-in-law, and a journalist)
Further credence to just how deep the wound runs in those areas is evident in this interview with reporter David Rohde, who recently managed to escape after being held hostage by one of the tribal warlords of the Haqqani faction.
So, it's no surprise that Clinton's attempts to charm the Pakistani women fell flat:
“Frankly, it was a waste of my time,” said one assistant professor from the Fatima Jinnah Women’s University (FJWU) in Rawalpindi, who asked not to be named. “[Clinton] wasn’t interested in hearing the about the layman’s problems or the reality of our daily lives.”
That caused many, such as Shazia Marri, the information minister of the Sindh province, to leave the meeting frustrated that their concerns were not heard.
“Emancipated women in Pakistan have a clear point of view that did not come across,” she said."
"Many women, including Zainab Azmat, a resident of the South Waziristan tribal agency, currently lecturing at Peshawar’s Institute of Management Sciences (IMS), complained that Clinton’s answers were too “reserved.” Ms. Azmat added that the intention of the meeting was unclear. “Why were we here? What did they want us to ask? What did they want to convey to us?” she asked."
Was it a waste of the women's time? Or a clear message to Pakistani powers-that-be that old equations no longer hold?
The Secretary of State of the United States didn't need to indulge in face time that could have been handled by lesser diplomats. This may very well have been her sole respite from realpolitik, a vestige of holding on to personal relationships built during her days as First Lady, a sort of pre-emptive mea-culpa for what is going to happen to the comfortable world of these women.
"You had one 9/11, we are facing 9/11's everyday", to paraphrase one of the indignant 'townhallers' who came to meet her.
The "war on terror' (pardon the usage of a now-obsolete term) is now expanding in fronts, moving like a not-so-stealthy cancer from the hills of Waziristan into the once-safer cities and urban areas of Pakistan. Who knows where it is headed next?