The importance of context


When the war on terror began a decade ago, one of the reasons Pakistan cited for its involvement was a feeling of being coerced into participation. That and perhaps the notion of ‘if you cannot beat them, join them’. The war has ultimately moved from Afghanistan into Pakistan and the real risk now is that the country will become the main battlefield, if it has not already become so. Embolden by the unilateral action against Osama bin Laden, the US is now threatening the same against the Haqqani network, and there is every reason to suspect it will take a similar line against LeT.

The media debate continues to simmer in Pakistan about the cost of Pakistan’s involvement in the war and if it should continue. However, most of the media discussions fail to see the regional and global reach of the conflict. The war on terror has spread overtime across the region and is truly transnational in nature. Not joining or quitting the war have never been options for Pakistan, especially now when the Western media narrative has already established Pakistan as the epicenter of terror.

Tragically, to date no serious effort has been made to create a public buy-in for the nation’s involvement in the conflict. This has produced an alarming gap between the perceptions of the people and the government about what this war means, resulting in consequences such as rising anti-Americanism and deteriorating US-Pakistan relations. It should be noted that no country has ever won a war without public support and backing.

While Pakistan attempts to deal with the harsh reality that now engulfs it, the US is confronted with the contradictions of its own message and objective. The Americans have maintained from the get-go that the war against terror is not directed against Islam; however the evolving reality on the ground makes it extremely difficult to continue making this argument. Moreover, the Arab Spring has vastly extended the scope of the conflict. The objective of preventing extremists from establishing safe havens, and from there planning and launching attacks against Western targets has become far more complex since the Arab Spring uprisings.

While the focus of the war has primarily been on Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and the Horn of Africa, as a result of the Arab Spring countries such as Yemen, Syria, Libya and Egypt have recently been added to the list of countries where the threat of an Islamist takeover exists.

Thus, one can make a case that the contradiction in the message and the ground reality makes it difficult for US allies in the region to sell the war to their public. This dynamics generates mistrust, which also plagues US-Pakistan relations.

The tense US-Pakistan relations exist within a broader pattern that shows the US-Islamic world relations are on a downward trajectory. For example, in addition to Pakistan, US ties with other prominent Muslim countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran are going through flux and stress as well. While the Arab Spring has improved American public perception in the region, the Palestinian UN bid for statehood has put the US in a challenging position, and its veto may reverse the recent gains made.

On the other hand, both China and Russia are capitalising on the opportunity, worsening perceptions of the US present by strengthening economic and defense ties with countries of the Middle East and South and Central Asia. Both powers have supported the Palestinian UN bid for statehood, and that would certainly increase their popularity in the Arab and Islamic world.

In order to analyse the perceptions and perspectives surrounding the downward trend in US-Islamic world relations, PoliTact interviewed South Asia experts at prominent think tanks.

Professor of National Strategy at the US National Defense University, Dr. Inderjith Singh, pointed out that it would be wrong to perceive the gaps between US and the Islamic world to be widening. He countered this notion by pointing to the good ties between the US and India, as well as with Malaysia and Indonesia. The comments clearly reflected the emerging pacific-centric focus of the US. It should be noted that both Malaysia and Indonesia have had tense relations with China in the past.

On the other hand, the South Asia Advisor for the US Institute of Peace (USIP), Moeed Yusuf stated that certain countries might be moving away from US but not the Islamic world as whole. Additionally, he pointed out the existence of many divisions within the Islamic world that are not going away because of any singly event.

In contrast, the Chairman of the US China Institute, Mushahid Hussain Syed presented a dismal picture for US influence in the region. While talking to PoliTact, he stated that the American ability to control and direct events based on its interests is decreasing. He believes that in the future, we would see the rise of ‘Middle Muslim Powers’ such as Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He added that these states were previously under US patronage, and are now distancing themselves from it. These countries, he envisions, will play increasingly autonomous roles in their respective regions.

Most of the studies coming out of think tanks recently have attempted to examine US-Pakistan relations within the context of Pakistan’s affairs with India, Afghanistan, Iran, China and Saudi Arabia and with a strictly nation-state mind set. However, they do not take in to account that US-Pakistan relations exist within the broader context of American relations with the rest of the Islamic world, and the interests of competing powers vying for influence in the region.

To make a convincing argument for why its role is critical to the war, Pakistan would have to connect its case to the broader patterns and geopolitical context inferred above. Coupled with this, the US needs a sincere assessment of the transnational implications of its foreign policy in the region in order to reduce the trust deficits and to counter the threats posed by extremists as well as other emerging and competing powers.

The writer is the chief analyst for PoliTact ( and and can be reached at [email protected]