Lobbying for Pakistan

A few months ago, a Congressman from the state of Florida wrote an op-ed in a conservative leaning paper in Washington DC, arguing that India should be made a permanent member of the UN Security Council. I did not learn about this piece serendipitously. It was posted on the website of the leading Indian lobbying group in the United States, called US India Political Action Committee (USINPAC). The op-ed was an obvious sign of USINPAC’s increasing political power in DC. Any lobbying group ought to be proud of such an achievement.

USINPAC, founded just six years ago, has serious clout. It has created a Congressional Indian Caucus in the House of Representatives that – at last count – has 176 members. Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1. There is an Indian Caucus in the Senate as well. It has 35 members – split nearly evenly between Democrat and Republican – and Senator Hillary Clinton serves as co-chair. When long-time Virginia senator George Allen insulted a young Indian-American by taunting him with the word “macaca” USINPAC played a large part in helping to end his career.

In 2005, the lobby was able to get India to be excluded from the Department of Homeland’s Security’s Special Registration Program for immigration. When Barack Obama’s campaign accidentally leaked a memo which described Hillary Clinton as “D-Punjab” due to her close ties with Indian business, the Obama apology letter was addresses to the head of USINPAC, Mr Sanjay Puri. The Indian lobby’s most significant successes have been in the form of the nuclear-deal between India and the US, as well as in various arms deals.

The Washington Post compares the Indian lobby – in terms of efficiency and ambition – with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), long considered the benchmark when it comes foreign policy lobbying.

All this sets up the question of the Pakistan lobby in America.

Historically, various groups have tried to poke their noses into Washington DC. The leading group is PAKPAC, which actually grew out of APPNA – Association of Pakistani Physicians of North America – more than a decade earlier than USINPAC, though it has simply not experienced the same kind of growth or acquired similar clout.

Despite its limited success, PAKPAC has maintained a consistent presence on Capitol Hill and on the 28th of June will have an event with Senator Joe Biden, newly elected Muslim congressman Andre Carson of Indiana and the first Muslim congressman in the US, Keith Ellison (who, incidentally, is a member of the India Caucus). Biden is one of the front-runners for getting the vice-presidential nod with Barack Obama and an expert on issues related to Pakistan.

What has kept PAKPAC from becoming more integral to American foreign policy with respect to Pakistan, and from expanding its influence, is the same thing that afflicts Pakistan in so many other places: religion and military.

A great number of Pakistanis living and growing up in the U.S. prefer working for Islamic groups over and above national ones. For many, Palestine and Arab issues take precedence over Pakistani matters. Some of this is PAKPAC and APPNA’s fault, because they didn’t cultivate a corner for the devout and pious Pakistanis to feel welcome until recently. The other was a problem of perception. APPNA allowed itself to be depicted by American-Islamic groups as a den of hedonism, alcohol and flirtation, when in fact, it was a tame and respectable group. There was also no attempt to create networks with notable religious personalities and philanthropists in Pakistan. When it is apparent that religious identity plays an important role for many Pakistanis, this was a mistake.

The greater problem has been military rule. When the Generals came to power they decided they didn’t need to engage in creating inroads with Pakistani ex-pats, since they could walk into CENTCOM and Pentagon. A few years ago, flush from $6 billion handed out by the Bush administration, General Musharraf decided that he was going to simply buy an entire Congressional Pakistani caucus. He proceeded to get 55 members. True to the military’s wasteful ways, he got in a bidding war with USINPAC for Congresswoman Sheila Jackson (D-TX) who had been an important member of the Indian caucus. When USINPAC offered her campaign $40,000, he upped the Indians and paid her campaign $50,000. Incidentally, despite being the head of Musharraf’s Pakistan caucus, she is still listed as a member of the Indian caucus in Congress. Being in both caucuses isn’t contradictory but it does make one wonder why Musharraf needed to pay her so much money in the first place – the same amount might have allowed him to make inroads with multiple congresspersons elsewhere.

The military’s bypassing of the civilian ex-pat groups like PAKPAC and smaller groups like Pakistani American Leadership Centre and National Council of Pakistani Americans, set back the evolution and natural growth of the Pakistani lobby. There are many websites belonging to smaller action groups that haven’t been updated in years – incidentally the same years while the military was in charge.

Now, as Pakistan is attempting to become a fully-functioning democracy again, is an important time for the Pakistani lobby to find new members and a new identity.

The natural inclination will be to set up as a counter-weight to the Indian lobby while defending all of the various excursions by the new government. This would be foolish.

It is eminently clear that the most pernicious issues affecting Pakistan today are those of terrorism, corruption and military dictatorship. Whoever decides to take the lead in lobbying has to focus on these three inter-related problems first and foremost.

Meeting with Senator Joe Biden and making him a centre-piece of any future Pakistan policy is a great idea. He may be up for being head of a Senatorial caucus. Demanding accountability and straight answers from ambassador Haqqani should be at the top of the list as well. Aitzaz Ahsan is on his way to the U.S. right now, reportedly to meet with U.S. officials; Pakistan’s lobbyists should grab a hold of him to give him support (and give him some much needed advice as to whom he should keep as friends when he goes back). Another important issue has to do with finding a solution to FATA – whether it will be provincial autonomy or merging into NWFP. Finally, the lobbyists must set up an independent watch-dog body that gives unbiased reports to Pakistani ex-pats around the world. It’s obvious that we cannot count on the Pakistani government to monitor itself.

There is nothing anywhere that says that a lobby has to be a lap-dog. The goal of a lobby is to work for a country. That means being honest about what the country most needs.

Ali Eteraz is a creative writer and political commentator, born in Lahore and based in Philadelphia, US. He can be contacted via www.alieteraz.com

Leave a comment