There is no such thing as a slow news day in Pakistan these days.
The past week saw claims and denials as to whether or not Tehrik-e-Taliban leader Baitallah Mehsud had been killed in a US drone attack (Washington now says it is 90% certain that he has), the filing of charges against former President Musharraf over his imposition of the 2007 emergency, a rocket attack on Peshawar that killed three people, and government denials of a report that militants had staged three attacks on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons facilities over the past two years.
And plans for the new United States “super-embassy” in Islamabad have also been making headlines in the Pakistani media.
$896 million is an attention grabbing sum of money — “nearly one billion dollars”, as most news stories have expressed it. “Nearly one billion dollars” out of the $2.4 billion war supplement aid package, set aside for the construction of this “imperial cantonment“.
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The planned new embassy sends a very visible message about the US engagement with Pakistan.
The US presence has been massively heightened, and it is there for the long haul. Charge d’Affaires Gerald Feirstein told Dawn that it “symbolized US commitment to stand by its friends in Pakistan”.
Pakistan has been a “frontline state” for decades now, first during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, falling from priority during the years that followed the Soviet withdrawal as Afghanistan was allowed to sink into civil war, and then resuming frontline status in the “war on terror” (a term that the Obama administration has dropped, but that will take longer to fade from the collective imagination).
And previous strategies of using successive military and civilian Pakistani governments as trusted proxies (not to mention recipients of lavish amounts of money) do not exactly look like a record of stunning foreign policy success. Nor does the present government led by Asif Zardari inspire a great deal of confidence. American officials are quoted as saying that the massive boost in aid necessitated extra staffing in order to exercise “oversight”.
Well, yes, given that the Prime Minister has long been notoriously known as “Mr 10%”, you would want someone exercising “oversight” of the cookie jar. Not to mention when the Pakistani military — your partners in counter-insurgency — have a long and complex relationship with many of the insurgents.
And given the bombings of international hotels and attacks on other places “frequented by foreigners”, it is understandable that the United States wants to house its staff in a secure bubble, far from the madding crowd – not to mention the carnage.
But the plans for the super-embassy are redolent of the old British cantonments, the garrisons from where the Raj exercised its authority, insulated from the natives.
Pakistan is desperately in need of development aid — its social infrastructure having been criminally neglected by successive governments, leaving gaping holes to be filled by Islamic movements from across the ideological spectrum.
The Obama administration has made it clear that it regards development assistance as a vital security issue, in order to plug these holes and marginalize the insurgents.
But when development and security issues become so tightly intertwined, efforts to provide vital services — eduction, health, functioning infrastructure — can start to look like old-fashioned imperialism. And the establishment of new cantonments does not help.