Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Winning Hearts and Minds, the Right Way


He might not have much influence on his country’s foreign policy, but he is surely the best ambassador any country could hope for

Pick up any newspaper, and you find Pakistan in the news more often than any other country – and usually not for the best of reasons. Fortunately, however, these days the news of corruption, bombs, beards and burkas is outshined by the hospitality and love ordinary Pakistanis shower upon an American helicopter pilot, John Bockman. His blog in a Pakistani newspaper, The Express Tribune, has been widely shared by his host country’s readers and is still drawing comments four weeks hence. He is part of a US humanitarian mission in Pakistan, delivering aid to the flood-ravaged areas.

Although the US remains the single largest donor of aid to Pakistan’s latest calamity-hit population, it still suffers from a huge public relations nightmare as far as its image among the majority of Pakistan’s population, or even the Muslim world, is concerned. Struggling to contain the negative fallout of some of their aggressive policies in this War on Terror, the US policy-makers and practitioners are hard-pressed to find effective measures to win hearts and minds of ordinary Pakistanis, and thereby curtail recruitment for terrorists. Although there are a variety of reasons quoted for this image deficit, including the oft quoted Bushism, ‘They hate us for our freedoms’, yet few believe that to be true because the bombs that drones drop with relentless frequency in the north-western areas of Pakistan drown out all other explanations and far outweigh aid and care packages.

The drone technology has been extensively used in the Northern areas of Pakistan to target militants in the last decade. It is a cause of serious concern for human rights activists around the world due to its high rate of failure, spilling more innocent blood than getting intended targets. A recent article by Johann Hari in the British newspaper, The Independent reported that the year 2009 alone saw 900 civilian lives in the tribal areas lost to this fearsome technological tool, and that according to David Kilcullen, who is a counter-insurgency expert and an adviser in the State Department, only two percent of those killed in Pakistan by drones are terrorists while 98% are " as innocent as the victims of 9/11".

These aggressive policies do not seem to have helped in curbing terrorism other than inducing some temporary setbacks to terrorists. They have also failed completely in winning hearts and minds in Pakistan for one big reason: ordinary Pakistanis are still struggling to differentiate between their benefactors and enemies. When terrorists blow up government buildings, hospitals, girls’ schools or markets killing innocent men, women and children, they claim victory against forces of evil while dismissing innocent blood as a necessary sacrifice in the path to their glorious goals. When drones unleash their unmanned power, often based on faulty intelligence on houses where families are sitting down to supper and blowing them to a million pieces, the Intelligence Agencies declare victory promptly if their target dies, and not a word of regret is uttered for other lives lost in collateral. Since there is no official acknowledgement of drone strikes by the US Government, no apology or sense of responsibility, nor modification of existing strategies is deemed necessary. Boosting recruitment and winning hearts and minds of terrorists? Absolutely. Ordinary people, not so much.

It was to such a backdrop that John Bockmann landed at Chaklala Base in Pakistan more than a month ago. He received much warmth from Pakistanis, despite being part of a system that represents, for many of them, blatant aggression. Why he draws such a response, one may be forgiven for wondering. Is it because he brings care packages for them, instead of bombs? Smiles and shakes hands; hugs and thanks them when he receives offers of chai? Makes an effort to learn Urdu so he may converse with his gracious hosts? Recounts his experiences without bias, thereby challenging stereotypes about them? Acknowledges that their everyday concerns for peace are similar to his own or those of his people back home? Pledges to do all in his capacity as an individual for the cause of peace? Or, all of the above? The answer is really quite obvious. John Bockmann might not have much influence on his country’s foreign policy, but he is surely the best ambassador any country could hope for.

I want to tell him, and I am sure I speak for many when I say, “ John, you are a beacon of hope, a source of strength and an inspiration for all those who believe in building a fair and just world. Your experiences are unique in that they represent the best of what humanity has to offer in the worst of circumstances. You are also the face of America Pakistanis need to see more of in order to pull through the chaos that is their constant companion. Please don't forget this hospitality when you return home. Cherish this experience as a constant reminder of what you have accomplished that people in higher positions can aspire for but not achieve – making ‘brothers’ among strangers by respecting their culture, acknowledging their kind hospitality and returning their warmth with your own. Thank you, John.”

Wars are built on propaganda and shielding of truth so that neither side gets to see the humane aspect of the other – it makes the taking of innocent lives lighter on the conscience. Pursuing long term goals of peace takes patience, and understanding. Brute force can only result in temporary gains while fuelling the fires we need to quench. There has to be another way to defeat the evil of violence. We must find it. After all, a decade of hate hasn’t done us much favour.

Published: ASIA! THROUGH ASIAN EYES Nov10, 2010.

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