Judging from recent actions by the Obama administration, one can be forgiven for thinking that the United States does not know its friends from its enemies in Pakistan. Their blunders may not make headlines in newspapers here, but they are adding fuel to the anti-American fire that consumes Pakistan.
Secretary Clinton and Admiral Mullen chastise Pakistan’s military establishment for nurturing extremism and harboring terrorists, but two recent revelations further compromise the standing of the United States in a confused, and confusing country.
Last January, the assassination of Salman Taseer by Malik Mumtaz Qadri provoked the response of an organization called the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC). Their defense of Taseer’s murderer made international headlines. Taseer was killed for trying to change Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and for protecting the rights of Christians and other minorities. Yet rather than attempt to bolster Taseer’s supporters, the State Department could only admit that it had funded the SIC to the tune of thirty-six thousand dollars just a year earlier.
Loose change, you may say, but not in Pakistan. Already, Pakistan’s liberal activists are asking if the money cited in the SIC’s offer to buy the assassin’s gun came from its U.S. grant. The joke is poor, but the popular exposure of U.S. government contradictions will stick.
Given the fumbling over the SIC, U.S. policymakers should be worried about how the State Department will spend the new “hush, hush” pot of five million dollars that came to light recently. The previous thirty-six thousand dollars went to the country’s Brelwi sect. This time around, some of the money is going to Pakistan’s Salafis. I accept the argument that Salafis can help disengage violent Salafis from terrorism, but we would be foolish to think that Salafis can deradicalize, much less be a counterextremist voice. I write about Salafi extremism in Egypt, and the lessons should not be lost in Pakistan.
Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, the U.S. coordinator for counterterrorism, seems a thoughtful and alert government official. He must realize that most Salafis, and even most Brelwis, have limited utility countering extremism in Pakistan. They can disengage from violence, but rarely do they deradicalize, much less counter extremism. This allocation of five million dollars is a fund for countering extremism: not merely ceasing violence temporarily. Ambassador Benjamin should ensure that U.S. taxpayer money does not find its way to people who support killing Americans—soldiers or civilians—in Pakistan or elsewhere. Saudi Arabia and Iran have bottomless pockets for funding that kind of propaganda. Rumor has it that Quintan Wiktorowicz of the National Security Council does not view Salafism as a problem per se. If the two recent (weak, incoherent) White House strategy papers are anything to go by, then that rumor is accurate.
To Pakistani critics, the only credible response from the State Department to Pakistan’s government and military is that at least the United States is transparent about whom it funds. You can blame it for making mistakes, but you can’t blame it for corruption and nepotism. That’s a lesson right there for Pakistan’s government and military.