The dangers of oversimplifying the situation in Pakistan

Many of those who are quick to condemn the country have a limited understanding of its structures an

In the aftermath of the killing of Osama Bin Laden, big questions have emerged over Pakistan's role and its relations with the US.

John Brennan, a counterterrorism adviser to Barack Obama, told journalists that it was "inconceivable" that Bin Laden did not enjoy a "support system" in Pakistan. While both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have emphasised Pakistan's importance in fighting al-Qaeda, the circumstances of his discovery are damaging.

Carl Levin, a Democrat who heads the Senate armed services committee, summed up these concerns at a press conference:

I think the Pakistani army and intelligence have a lot of questions to answer given the location, the length of time and the apparent fact that this facility was actually built for Bin Laden and its closeness to the central location of the Pakistani army.

From the Pakistani side, there are questions, too – the US reportedly did not trust the ISI with news of Bin Laden's whereabouts, which will not go down well, given existing tension over increased numbers of CIA agents in the country and public anger at ongoing incursions on Pakistani soil in the form of drone attacks.

The former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf told CNN:

America coming to our territory and taking action is a violation of our sovereignty. Handling and execution of the operation [by US forces] is not correct. The Pakistani government should have been kept in the loop.

Clearly, there are murky waters here – and many questions that might not be answered publicly. Logging on to Twitter yesterday, I was disturbed to see many tweets of the "Get them!" variety, calling for action against Pakistan. But many of those passing comment clearly have very little knowledge of the country's state systems and the atmosphere there.

I've just returned from a trip to Karachi, where I was struck by quite how prevalent anti-American sentiment is. What might look to westerners like public sympathy for extremists is more often based on support for those holding their ground against the west, rather than agreement with extremist ideas. In an excellent article in today's Financial Times, Ahmed Rashid suggests that now might be the time to challenge this narrative:

He was a hero to some Pakistanis because he defied the west and because the country is desperately short of heroes. Perhaps Pakistan's leaders can now have the courage to turn around the mythology and show what Bin Laden really was – a political leech who introduced suicide bombing, helped to create the Pakistani Taliban and promoted intolerance in a country that was at relative peace with itself until he appeared on the scene.

Even the heavy death toll inflicted on Pakistan by terrorists is put at America's door – with some justification, given that the Taliban were all but absent from the country until the US invaded Afghanistan. The country has been ravaged by the war on terror. Since 2001, terrorists have killed nearly 15,000 people there – a number that doubles to more than 30,000 when counterterror violence is taken into account.

However, effectively challenging the perception of Bin Laden as a martyr is difficult, given that there is essentially no cohesive state in Pakistan. The state itself – as in central government – is remarkably weak, because Pakistan is and remains a tribal society, more dependent on local feudal powers than central systems. This goes some way towards explaining why it took so long to capture Bin Laden.

The separation of powers, held by varied forces in Pakistani society – the military, the ISI, the government and local tribes – certainly helps to explain the country's sometimes contradictory actions. This is why the government can co-operate with the US and sanction drone attacks even as the ISI fails to track extremists.

The intelligence service has a long history of alliance with extremist groups and, like the military, is reluctant to fight its own people. In the Times today, Anatol Lieven (£) draws a distinction between the ISI's "hard" treatment of international terrorists and its more tolerant attitude to home-grown insurgents.

What is beyond question is that the relationship between Islamabad and Washington is vital to both sides. Oversimplifying the situation on the ground in Pakistan with a reductive "us and them" narrative serves no one – least of all the people of Pakistan, who are the most likely targets for retaliation attacks.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.