I was let off lightly. Only one person tried to prod me about India’s role in Afghanistan – how India was encircling the Northwest Frontier Province with consulates overflowing with spies. Well worn conspiracy and no one took him seriously.
Knowing diaspora audiences can be tougher-than-thou over rivalries inherited from the homeland, I had braced for worse. But it was clear India wasn’t on the Pakistani radar. Even the lone Pakistani consular officer didn’t bother to raise Kashmir.
Even when I critiqued the Pakistani army officer corps for becoming venal, unprofessional and politicized the main response was a lot of head-nodding. Afterwards, a Pakistani man came to me, “I’m an army brat myself. But you’re right, we can fight or rule. We can’t do both.”
I mentioned how a Pakistani-American, whose job has him roaming Afghanistan’s southeast border, had told me that when Afghans asked him where his father hailed from, he found it useful to say, “My father was born in India.”
A half-truth: His father was born in pre-1947 Lahore. “He told me there was no welcome mat for Pakistanis in the border areas,” I said. The deepest faultline in South Asia was the one between Kabul and Islamabad. The Pakistani Parsee novelist, Bapsi Sidhwa, followed this up by telling the audience, “These Afghans are ungrateful wretches. “
Later on, there was some soul searching among the Pakistanis in the audience about the future of democracy, their country and so on. At one point, someone got up and said, “Our problem is that there is too much outside interference. Starting with the Americans.” Thunderous applause.
Those were the only two times when the 150-strong audience clapped loudly during the event.
Back in Washington, after a round of chats with think tanks and US government officials, a few things seemed clear. One, Washington has no B plan now that the Benazir-Pervez shotgun marriage is no longer possible – other than to replace the deceased bride with her sleazy husband. Two, the West’s entire counterterrorism establishment has Pakistan on its mind.
There have been seven Islamic terrorist plots in Europe since the Heathrow “liquid bomb” scare. Six of them have originated out of Pakistan or have involved Pakistani ethnics. Which is why so many “random” airport inspections tend to zero in on people with the word “Pakistan” anywhere on their passport.
Finally, even while Pakistanis have become (say the polls) more anti-American than anti-Indian, US policymakers have become frustrated that the Pakistani establishment continues its internecine feuding even while a biggish chunk of the country has declared war on Islamabad.
Everyone expects a record year for suicide bombings. Many Pakistanis hope it will trigger a backlash against their country’s involvement in the US led war on terror. Americans hope it will make Pakistanis recognise that the war on terror as in their national interest. They both can’t be right.