Why a Nice Boy From Pakistan Bombs Times Square

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    You won’t get the perception of America held in Pakistan sitting here. Change places with a native. Not far outside Islamabad, federal authority fades into tribal hegemony. Promise after promise of American friendship and assistance has faded into comfort for the elite, not progress for democracy or the economy.

    In one moment, my respect and understanding for the Pakistani leadership was completely altered. This was before the coup by General Pervez Mushariff. This was before Pakistan went nuclear. This was the kinder, gentler Pakistan; but the Pakistan whose patience was worn threadbare. And the group I was with had been sent on a fool’s errand. At the end of that day, I knew that those Pakistani flag grade officers went home each and every day with a chip on their shoulders. It was a chip that rationalized corruption and hedged relationships. It was a chip that not one person in the embassy that I encountered explained. A piece of it was probably carried into Times Square on the shoulder of Faisal Shahzad.  

    In most instances, my experience dealing with nations in Southwest Asia brought few surprises. Between the two Iraq Wars I worked for the United Nations in Israel and Syria before coming to Central Command (CENTCOM), and dealt with people from the American embassies as something of a customer rather than a functionary of the United States government. I gained experience with embassy personnel in a number of Asian and African nations in this new role before striking out for meetings at the military headquarters outside Rawalpindi.

    Preparing for the conference, we sought cooperation with State Department personnel at the Embassy on the edge of the city. We stayed near the city center in Islamabad at the Marriott. Not authorized a rental car (not excited about driving native anyhow) we established a relationship with a local cab driver named Hussein who grinned about his name (which was then coincidently the same as the yet to be disposed leader of Iraq) when he realized we were Americans. My cohorts and I found him a reliable source of local gossip and shopping guidance. He was also quite willing to venture out into the hinterland where leather goods were a bit less dear. That ended up the most productive part of the journey. Our efforts at the United States Embassy yielded little. As I remember, no one there was interested enough to accompany us to the meeting and I always suspected that this was so that the lack of substantial and meaningful contact would not be uncovered. To be fair, it was not as though the State Department had a plan for Pakistan and everything they did was at the mercy of Congress’s whims anyway.

    At the gathering with the Pakistanis, a representative of CENTOM presented a proposal for military cooperation. At these events, the sides come to the table with agendas and the initial discussion expectedly follows with a host nation centric counterproposal. Without getting into details, we each buried strategic objectives within our concepts. The lead planner listened to their counter and began the work to overcome objections by enumerating the advantages of our approach, adding some bells and whistles that would benefit Pakistan. Then, shortly, one of the Pakistani general officers put up his hand, halting the discussion. “Excuse me,” he interrupted, “Can you tell me when we will be getting our fighter jets?”

    Well above our pay grade, none of us were about to tackle that hot potato. From what we knew, those jets had been sold again to Indonesia and we still had not refunded Pakistan’s money. The planner’s CENTCOM superior stood up and made an effort to bring the discussion back down from nosebleed levels and ameliorate the situation, but the officer would have none of it. “I suppose then,” he concluded standing up, “we should just go to tea.” And it was over. No doubt that that evening they went home and expressed their opinions more sharply. And when you are a child at your father’s knee, you are often left with a lasting impression.

    When I taught a CENTCOM Focused Study at the Joint Forces Staff College, before 9/11, I always concluded my briefings on Pakistan with, “One day we are going to need these guys and they are going to remember how consistently we crapped all over them when it really mattered to them.”

    They remembered. You see it in the distribution, or lack thereof, of American assistance over the years. You can see it in the Afghanistan files released to the public. I believe you saw it in the ability of Faisal Shahzad to rationalize his attempt to kill Americans (of which he is one) to camouflage his own failures. The assistance money, really too meager to help that much, rarely made it further than a bureaucracy that was justified by the expectations of more to come and the “requirement” for strong central management. The reported equivocation by the Pakistani functionaries on support for American efforts has been a rational hedge. They will still live there after we leave and we have a history of leaving (I might add that our history of leaving is the usually the outcome of going where we should not). Faisal Shahzad is simply another loser whose mind led him to act out in a way that he thought would bring grace from any of a number of clients.

    That is how a nice boy from Pakistan ends up choosing an object of his frustration that has nothing to do with his demons. And that is how when it really matters to us, the Pakistanis crap all over us.