East Peoria -- Some of the speakers, without slides to distract the eye and speaking with thick accents, droned on and on and on. The main event, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, was a no-show.
Nevertheless, the Peoria Area World Affairs Council’s 39th annual conference, on Feb. 27-28 at the posh Embassy Suites Conference Center in East Peoria, IL. (check out the river-view restaurant there!) offered some interesting insights into a major trouble spot. An estimated 250 people attended.
Among the hot subjects; nuclear weapons, terrorists, Predator missiles, poverty, Islamic militants – all mixed together in a place that the New York Times today described as on the abyss.
A Saturday morning panel at the conference.
Trudy Rubin, prize winning international reporter, author and columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, presented an insider’s view of Pakistan and its neighbors. She has interviewed generals, diplomats and government officials in all the major nations of the Mid-East and Pakistan.
Rubin. Photos by Al Harkrader
1. The US must strengthen its relations with Pakistan to control terrorists in the region, which threaten not only the US troops in nearby Afghanistan but the Pakistan government.
2. That’s harder than it sounds, given the tangled history and relationships in the region. Some terrorists want to stop improved relations between Pakistan and India. That’s why the hotel in Bombay/Mumbai was bombed recently. Pakistan has admitted the terrorists were trained and controlled in Pakistan.
3. So the terrorist militants are more of a treat to Pakistan than India is. But the Pakistan military, trained to fight a land war against India, has no experience is defeating a domestic insurgency, and some may support the militants. Why? Pakistan’s government is corrupt and weak, and the military regards the Taliban in Afghanistan as a buffer against India there.
4. So there’s a gap between the US military and the Pakistan military on deal-making with the Taliban. But Obama seems committed to developing better relations with Pakistan, based not just on arms sales but economic development. US civilian and military officials are working to build trust. “You can’t win by military means alone.”
5. Yet deals have been made and broken with militants before, and it’s not clear more weapons and economic development will have the desired impact.
6. Bin Laden will be found only by using human intelligence, not bombing. The new Afghanistan counter insurgency strategy with 17,000 more US troops now being pursued by Obama makes sense, and may stabilize the region to prevent it from falling into Taliban hands
7. Meanwhile more Afghan troops will be trained. “It’s worth a try because if Afghanistan falls it will drag Pakistan down further. I do not think the US can impose democracy. Countries will return to what their own history and culture will support.”
8. The Predator missile strikes were based on a private understanding between the US and Pakistan, but stir up anti-American feelings as well as anti government feelings in Pakistan, whose government is seen as “doing America’s bidding.”
9. Bush allowed the strikes and Obama has continued them. But if Pakistan steps up against those tribal regions, they may diminish.
Rubin also spoke out in favor of mainstream media, especially newspapers that have covered the region, after a student asked why these issues were not being covered. The student then admitted not reading any newspapers and getting news from the internet.
“All of us should think about what we’re going to do when there are no newspapers,” she said.
She could have added that newspapers have trained mainstream journalists as well as bloggers, and that training will vanish when newspapers, with the institutional heft to train newcomers, vanish.
Other conference insights:
Consul General Aman Rashid, of the Chicago Consulate, noted that only elite schools teach English, consigning most students to lives of poverty when they can’t attend these schools.
Ambassador Touqur Hussain, former ambassador to Japan from Pakistan and professor at George Washington University, Washington, DC asked the audience to consider how all religions have been entangled in politics, and all have their militants.
1. The message of any religion depends on the social groups and environment of the recipient. “If politics is no solution, people turn to religion and it becomes a part of their self image.”
2. Much of the Islamic world has been dominated by an elite that neglected social problems, and that leadership is now slipping away to Islamists, both traditional and extremist.
3. Pakistan had a weak national identity so defined itself as an opponent of India. But it then paid a heavy price for the military that has dominated there.
4. The weak are swayed by illusions of empowerment, and fooled by extremists. That situation led to a crisis in government, so Pakistan depended on outside financing from governments that exploited Pakistan and generated a backlash that added to extremist powers.
5. Pakistan needs a mature democracy to defeat extremism, but that takes time. Religion serves as a medium of protest and idealism throughout the world for young people.
6. Rubin is right, there is a trust deficit. If the government is seen to be acting on behalf of unpopular America, it will lose the trust of the people. The US must redefine the war on terrorism and be on the side of the people and their problems
Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute, Washington, DC. said Pakistan feels insecure, thus the developed nuclear weapons as well as the strength of its military.
1. Its insurgency, its sinking economy, its ethnic and religious tensions, its support of proxy groups such as militants, its fear of Afghanistan as a weak state that can be controlled by India so support for a proxy group there, the Taliban -- all add up to problems in the region.
2. Iran is playing a double game, supplying the Taliban with weapons to keep the US out. Pakistan needs Iran’s energy.
3. “The economics and security of the region are tied to Pakistan’s destiny. Getting it right in Afghanistan is crucial to Pakistan’s security. If extremists gain the upper hand in Afghanistan, it will energize them in Pakistan.”
Ambassador Muhammad Aslam Khan, deputy Chief of Mission, substituted for the Pakistan ambassador. He said Pakistanis think of themselves as victims, not culprits, and need the support of other nations. “We deserve sympathy, support, encouragement, not punishment.”
1. He called for more economic development and for the US to open its markets to Pakistan’s products.
2. He disputed comments Rashid made about Kashmir, and said uprisings there are indigenous.
In response to a question, Rashid and Hussain also called for development, and said the missile attacks must stop. “Let Pakistan do it,” Hussain said of military action against militants.
My take: Interesting conference despite its flaws. Pakistan is a mess. See the film A Mighty Heart about the murder of reporter Daniel Pearl to get the flavor of the confusion, the poverty, the crowded life there. Then despair.
-- Elaine Hopkins