Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Problem with Covering Pakistan

The Washington Post ran a story yesterday headlined, "Pakistani Jets Scramble as India Hardens Tone."

The November terrorist attacks on Mumbai have been compared to September 11, 2001. But three days after that attack, the United States Congress authorized military action against Afghanistan, another sovereign nation. A month after similar devastation occurred in Mumbai, Indian government officials are still saying, "We will take all measures necessary as we deem fit to deal with the situation."

Which brings me to the Post's headline. How does a statement like the above, by India's foreign minister, count as a hardening of tone? On Tuesday, according to a story in The Hindu, Indian PM Manmohan Singh said, "The issue is not war, but terrorism being aided and abetted by Pakistan. We want Pakistan to make objective efforts to dismantle the terror infrastructure."

Nearly a week before Singh's statement, George W. Bush gave a speech in Pennsylvania where he referred to the US relationship with Pakistan as his legacy. According to the Post, Bush told a group of students, "A country that was a supporter of the Taliban before September 11 today is a strong partner of the United States."

In a Newsweek commentary on the subject, Fareed Zakaria wrote, "The Pakistani government has never made a fundamental decision to turn its back on the culture of jihad."

There are many issues here: one is the marked difference between how the US press treats India post-attack and the way it treated the US post-attack. This might be expected. The other is the media's uncritical acceptance of Bush's fondness for Pakistan (he would not be the first president whose choice of allies we might later regret).

The Washington Post seems to have bought into the attitude that war between India and Pakistan is inevitable, and it is merely a matter of time before it occurs. (For those who don't believe this, look at the first paragraph of the Post's story about Singh's Tuesday speech. The focus is entirely on the military preparations rather on the substance of Singh's words. The story is different from the Hindu coverage.) By focusing on the possibility of war (which neither nation desires), the Post article obscures the real and important policy issue at hand: Islamabad's questionable commitment to fighting terrorism. (And we might ask why the Post is so obsessed with war: because wars sell newspapers?)

By contrast, the Hindu has consistently presented the counter-argument: that war is not the central question here. From a Pakistani perspective: regardless of whether the government wants to turn its back a culture of jihad, can it afford to? (Zakaria address this question, too.) And if not, what does that mean for diplomats?

Zakaria goes on to write, "The problem with Islamic militant groups in Pakistan is not that they are hard to find but rather that they are in plain sight."

The solution to the problem of Pakistan's terror groups won't arrive if our president keeps issuing statements like, "A nation that produced 15 of the 9/11 hijackers now serves as a staunch ally in the war on terror." (And what is the point of the Reuters story about this speech, which reproduces the text without offering any perspective?)

The world must face and address the problem of Pakistan's terrorist groups. These groups exist and thrive despite the Pakistani government's commitment to fighting terror. And while newspapers should take a critical look at Pakistan (and statements by its government), they shouldn't promote war hysteria either. The two can be reconciled: Zakaria does just that in his piece.

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