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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Pakistan and the United States: Mutually Assured Misunderstandings?

Solutions Across Borders had the opportunity to host Professor Koenig from the Political Science department this past Tuesday. A crowd of twenty students were present to learn more about the erratic U.S.-Pakistani relationship, as well as to discuss the lack of response to the devastating Pakistan flood.

The first part of the discussion was a very welcome insight into what may be an irreconcilable relationship between the two states. Until Pakistan determines what exactly it wants to accomplish along with or against the Taliban and the two states align on their geostrategic goals, we can expect more confusion and misunderstandings in their relationship in the future. Part of the problem stems from the fact that we are not so sure who runs Pakistan. Is it Asif Ali Zardari, an inherited temporary President, the ISI (CIA equivalent) or is it the Taliban which has an extremely strong presence in maintaining life in the outer regions of Pakistan? Who can the United States depend on as the honest actor in this region?

We also discussed the Pakistan flood and the lack of action and coverage by the U.S. government, the media and even Baruch College. Over 21 million people have been left injured or homeless in the natural disaster that Ban Ki-Moon has said 'was the worst [he had] ever seen.' The flood left an area over the size of England flooded under water and received only fifteen articles from the NY Times, only one warranting the front page. Compare this to the 88 Haiti earthquake articles, almost all front page.
What creates this discrepancy? The media may be largely blamed for the failure to communicate, but they have also been plagued by issues that have made their response difficult, the first being the recession. It has become too expensive to have reporters stationed in bureaus abroad- leading to high travel and media costs to go anywhere, and especially as far as Pakistan. The second can be attributed to fear from the Daniel Pearl story. There is great danger for media in going to Pakistan – and those brave and willing to go will need a fixer, bodyguards with AK-47s and a great deal of trust for the people who have their life in their hands. While the danger is understandable, it can also be stated that journalists are lacking the bravery and courage that we have come to expect from them. Another issue is donor fatigue, which began setting in as we grew tired of the Haitian earthquake. The American public has already been captivated by a natural disaster this year, already loosened their tight pockets and watched the news – their sympathy quota is up. Haiti, while receiving immense coverage was still a ratings downer, and the U.S. media is a reflection of its audience. This fatigue set in for Haiti even though it also had a great amount of star power- we watched Wyclef Jean, Anderson Cooper and Sean Penn in Haiti through the television, campaigning and asking us for funds. Not to mention state attention- the Clintons and Bush took a specific interest in this disaster. Where are they now? We cannot discount that there is also large mistrust over where the funds are going. Even the Pakistani expat community has issued warnings not to donate through imams or religious means. How can they be sure where the money goes? Does it go to the government apparatus, to the NGOs, to the mullahs or to the Taliban? There are very few organizations present in Pakistan that have gained the trust of the American people.
Something also to consider is the recent flood of news related to Islamophobia domestically, i.e. the Park51 Mosque and the Pakistani Faisal Shahzad Times Square bomb attempt. It seems that there are domestic concerns to focus on that are also related to Islam and the media and the U.S. community is picking and choosing their battles. But I believe that we are missing an opportunity to counter the Taliban in the battle over the hearts and minds of the Pakistanis. The lack of an effective state structure is what creates the need for the Taliban to begin with. The people of Pakistan will turn to who will help them. Certainly not the U.S. - we go to Pakistan with drones, not donations. Certainly not their state- Zardari has left Pakistan to go on a tour of Europe. Professor Koenig mentioned the success of the Japanese Yakuza in being the first group to respond to the Kobe earthquake, before the state was able to mobilize its resources. These are the types of situations that give power to marginal groups in a society, a fear that Zardari echoes for his people.
We can also look at Baruch College. The Ticker covered a fair amount of the Haiti earthquake, but I failed to find anything significant about Pakistan. The lack of response by USG can be attributed to a new administration that did not yet have the time to organize anything on a large scale. However, that is not to underestimate the admirable efforts that are being made. We are also now seeing a significant response from the Baruch community, something we weren't seeing before. On Wednesday, October 20, a number of student groups including USG and The Ticker are holding 'Pakistan Flood Relief Night' in the multipurpose room, an event to raise awareness and funds for the flood. So things are looking upward, maybe as members of the Baruch community, we can bring attention to this disaster.

- Ankita Suri

* A special thanks to Professor Koenig for leading this discussion and sharing his thoughts

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