Over the years, I’ve had the occasion to meet various officials from the Indian Embassy in Washington D.C. They have all at one point or another asked the same question “How do the Pakistanis keep beguiling you Americans? Why does this country continue to receive billions of aid and military assistance while supporting terrorism and being an irresponsible nuclear weapons state?” The short answer is that the Pakistanis can extract such resources from the Americans precisely because it a nuclear-armed menace perpetrating terrorism through its varied proxies.
But Pakistan also operates through “soft power” to cultivate American sympathies through “hospitality” and well-spoken lies. It can do so only because the Americans on the Pakistan portfolio, especially at the operational level, tend to be green ingénues, unfamiliar with the region and America’s vexing relations with Pakistan.
There is no reason why Pakistan should have all the fun. Here’s a guide that should enable India’s own Ministry of External Affairs to join the game.
The Liability of Newbies
Pakistanis succeed in part due to the fact that their American counterparts are woefully unacquainted with the history of Pakistan generally, and of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship in particular. Readers beyond the U.S. may find this difficult to believe given the global perception of the all-knowing Americans and their highly competent CIA that provides cogent intelligence to the diplomats in the field. Alas, this simply is not true.
To give a flavour of what I mean, let me recount a somewhat recent experience with an outgoing public affairs officer. Her main qualification for this job, apart from being affable and energetic, was that she had published a coffee-table book of photography on a completely unrelated Asian country, and apparently was willing to go to Islamabad. This particular woman came to me in the two days prior to departing for Islamabad. She insisted upon discussing a military ruler named “Bhutto”. I informed her that there was no such person and she insisted that she had read this and that she was certain she was correct. I didn’t bother further. Clearly she knew what she needed to know. I thought to myself, the folks who will handle her at the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), the Ministry of Information, and the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) are going to have a field day with this one.
Hers is not an unusual case. I had met several others similar to her in the past. The reasons for this are structural. Since Pakistan is a hazard post, personnel deploy without their families for year-long tours that can be renewed at the officer’s initiative. The conditions for serving in Pakistan present a host of moral hazard problems in that they result in attracting the wrong people: people who want to escape their families or other problems back home, danger junkies who want to pretend to be fighting the good fight from the safety of Compound America, and most importantly, people who selected Pakistan as an nth-order preference of ranking, but were not selected for the posts they actually wanted. Collectively, this means that the U.S. has had difficulty recruiting qualified and experienced Foreign Service officers and other personnel, particularly at the operational and functional level. Worse yet, by the time they finally get to meet and interact with the selected few interlocutors handed down to them by their numerous predecessors, they are already looking for their next posting. Instead of having the A team for this important post, the U.S. Department of State gets a B, C or even D team.
It is true at the more strategic level of ambassadors and consuls general; the State Department sometimes has better luck. And on occasion, the mission gets a superb person who actually has interest in the country and has bothered to educate herself or himself about the place and its tortured relations with the U.S. Nonetheless, the personnel engaging in routine business of the mission leave much to be desired.
One major issue identified by Alexander Evans of the Asia Society Policy Institute is that the U.S. State Department has no dedicated cadre of ‘South Asianists’ because it has no dedicated language community. In contrast, the State Department has a steady fleet of Arab, Japanese and Chinese experts. Evans recommends that this must be remedied. While Evans refers to South Asia as a whole, the Pakistan mission suffers more than India. After all, India is a highly desired post that attracts competitive persons who stay in the country for more than one year.
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Christine Fair is a Visiting Scholar, Gateway House. She is an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.
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