Was Cameron right to condemn Pakistan?

The Prime Minister’s comments in India simplify the issue and assume a level of cohesion in the Paki

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David Cameron has been big on controversial statements these last few days. While his no-nonsense rhetoric on Pakistan yesterday went down a storm among his Indian audience, was it really the best way to further the UK's aims in the region?

On a trade trip to India, Cameron said:

We cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that this country [Pakistan] is allowed to look both ways and is able, in any way, to promote the export of terror, whether to India or whether to Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world.

It has the makings of a full-scale diplomatic row. Pakistan took the unusual step of issuing a rebuttal, while Wajid Shamsul Hasan, the Pakistani high commissioner to Britain, has written an article in today's Guardian defending his country.

One would have hoped that the British prime minister would have considered Pakistan's enormous role in the war on terror and the sacrifices it has made since 9/11. He seems to be more reliant on information based on intelligence leaks, despite it lacking credibility or corroborating proof. A bilateral visit aimed at attracting business could have been conducted without damaging the prospects of regional peace.

It is not as clear-cut as Hasan makes out: contrary to his protests, the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) is a very murky organisation. It has almost certainly been involved with the training and funding of Kashmiri separatists for decades, and it is very likely that elements of it directly or indirectly help the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

But Hasan is right to draw attention to the sacrifices made by Pakistan since 2001 (more than 2,700 members of the army have been killed, and more than 9,000 seriously wounded -- far more than the total casualties of Nato allies in the same period). Cameron's reference to "exporting terror" ignores the fact that terrorist attacks in Pakistan have become commonplace in a way that we could not imagine in the UK. Thousands of lives have been lost in attacks on markets, schools, mosques.

This points to the central issue. Cameron's comments imply a deliberate double-faced policy, saying one thing to the west while funding terrorism in the region. This assumes a level of cohesion in the Pakistani government that simply does not exist. Hasan himself (while in opposition) called the ISI a "state within a state", arguing that it controlled foreign policy. It is a law unto itself, answerable neither to the leadership of the army, nor to the president or prime minister.

Indisputably, this is a problem. The ISI needs to be brought under control, as much for the sake of those Pakistanis that have lost their lives fighting the west's war on terror as for international interests.

But condemning a whole country, which is how Cameron's words will be taken, is not the answer. Conspiracy theories are popular in South Asia (I know -- I'm half Pakistani). In recent years, one that has gained currency in Pakistan is that terrorist activities in Pakistan were carried out by the CIA to get public opinion in the country behind the US. The Wikileaks revelations met with a similar response -- added to the buzz of conjecture is the idea that the US orchestrated the release of the papers to pave the way for military intervention in Pakistan.

Theoretically, it's perfectly justifiable for Cameron to speak out about the ISI. Pakistan is a strategically important country with weak governance. But he did not go about it in the right way. Speaking on the soil of Pakistan's number one enemy and using such aggressive rhetoric will have done little but make the country feel attacked and under siege. Quite apart from the ruling classes, the people -- already losing faith in the west and their own leaders, who are viewed as its puppets -- will be further alienated.

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

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