Pakistan has supplanted India as the South Asian point of pontification in Washington. Benazir Bhutto’s assassination helped. So did the general US view that New Delhi had lapsed into paralysis. “India is the country that can’t say yes to America,” joked a State Department official. Or say “no” or even, “perhaps”.
In comparison, of course, Pakistan is the country that can only express itself through an AK-47. I often found myself in a strange position: an Indian arguing against doomsday thinking about Pakistan. This was partly because I felt that talk of a “nuclear Taliban state” destroyed any sensible long-term thinking in the US about Pakistan’s future. This phobia degenerated quickly into the view that only Musharraf-type strongmen could be trusted.
After Benazir’s death, I was called in for a half-dozen TV and radio interviews about Pakistan. Anchors and fellow panelists rolled their eyes when I argued Pakistan was only a mitigated disaster. “If Pakistani Punjab was a separate state,” I would note, “it would be per capita the richest country in South Asia. Punjab is the sheet anchor of the country and it isn’t cracking up. Yet.”
I got a flavour of why there was so much skepticism. After I was called in by a CNN America staffer for the third time, I gently said it was perhaps apolitic to keep using an Indian journalist to comment on Pakistan. “Look, all our regular Pakistani sources are either too scared to talk or in jail,” said the staffer.
The good ol’ Days of the US-Pakistan relationship were revived, however briefly, when I spoke at the Asia Society Texas in mid-January. The star of the event was Houston socialite Joanne Herring — the formidable woman who aroused the US to help the Afghans beat the Soviet Union. Her work is now immortalised by Julia Roberts in the movie Charlie Wilson’s War.
She sensibly denounced the US for walking away from the Afghans after the Soviet withdrawal. But weirdly warned the audience of present-day “Russian involvement with the Taliban.” The largely Pakistani-American audience applauded politely. The heroine was in a timewarp. (to be continued)