IT’S somewhat odd that whereas there were any number of voices calling for President Asif Zardari to cancel his state visit to Britain on account of remarks made by Prime Minister David Cameron in Bangalore, hardly anyone bothered to suggest that perhaps his jaunt to Paris and London ought to be put off on account of one of Pakistan’s worst natural disasters in living memory.
Perhaps that’s because no one in their wildest dreams could imagine that his presence in the country would in any way be particularly conducive to rescue and relief efforts. Which is fair enough. It is not, however, uncommon in such circumstances for heads of state or government to at least make symbolic gestures of solidarity with their nation’s beleaguered populace, and putting off a trip to Europe doesn’t seem like a particularly stupendous sacrifice.
It is more than likely that misplaced priorities have played a part in the sharp dip in Zardari’s popularity in the Pew Research Centre poll released last week, which showed 76 percent of those polled expressing an unfavourable view of the president, up from 65 percent last year and just 24 percent in 2008. That’s quite an achievement. It could perhaps be remedied somewhat by a duel with Cameron on the lawns of Chequers. But, more seriously, the figures would undoubtedly have improved had Pakistanis seen him rolling up his pants and at least attempting to console some of the flood-stricken unfortunates in Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa.
The current floods, which have already accounted for well over 1,000 lives – and it’s all but certain the toll will rise considerably – are the worst in living memory. The Red Cross fears the scale of the tragedy will be larger even than the consequences of the earthquake that swept the region nearly five years ago. There is no reason to doubt that the army is doing its best to assist the survivors. There can equally be little doubt that its efforts will prove insufficient, not least because it is stretched on many fronts. As in the case of relief efforts in the wake of the 2005 earthquake, part of the vacuum will most probably be filled by auxiliaries of the Islamist organizations that are responsible in large part for Pakistan’s dubious reputation.
The blurred civil and military focus has lately been emphasized once more by the fact that Cameron’s remarks in Bangalore appear to have attracted more attention than the deadly overflows. Virtually every observer was quick to cotton on to the fact that it was not so much what the British prime minister said but where he said it that mattered the most. The accusation of Pakistan “looking both ways” is hardly novel; Washington. after all, periodically makes the same point. But Islamabad takes American criticism in its stride. It can ill afford to take too much umbrage at occasional reprimands from the White House or the Pentagon.
India, however, hardly falls in the same category. Even relatively mild insinuations of misconduct from New Delhi raise Islamabad’s hackles. And Indian Home Secretary G.K. Pillai’s accusation that the ISI was behind the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks wasn’t a mild insinuation. That he made the charge during Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna’s visit to Pakistan last month suggested it was intended to undermine a possible thaw in relations between the two neighbours. And an embarrassed Krishna has made it clear that he did not appreciate the timing of the intervention. He didn’t suggest that the charge was unfounded, though. And if there is any evidence whatsoever that active members of Pakistan’s main military intelligence agency were even peripherally involved in the Mumbai massacres of 2008, India has every right to be mightily peeved. Krishna evidently realizes, though, that the solution to the conundrum lies in diplomacy rather than belligerence.
India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was reputedly a key factor in staving off a military response to the Mumbai attacks. Even he, however, has deemed it opportune to supplement Cameron’s controversial speech with a diatribe of his own, just as Hamid Karzai complemented the White House’s reprimand, in the wake of the WikiLeaks revelations, with a critique that potentially negates his recent negotiations with the Pakistani military hierarchy.
It isn’t exactly unreasonable to hold that the WikiLeaks documents relating to Pakistan are not a particularly solid basis for accusing Pakistan of playing a double game. But there are not the only basis, either. Where, after all, do potential Islamist terrorists go for training? The fact that Pakistan is one of the primary victims of this variety of terrorism, as its government has been at pains to point out, does not cancel out its longstanding status as an incubator of such tendencies.
Yes, the Pakistani authorities do also cooperate with those who purport to be fighting terrorism (while conveniently overlooking the fact that many of their actions serve as ideal bases for terrorist recruitment). There is also plenty of circumstantial evidence of collusion with the CIA and MI6 in torturing individuals to establish their credentials and elicit information – often in cases where there is none to be had. In the event, perhaps it’s hardly surprising that Cameron’s comments elicited a concertedly hostile response. And it must have come as some relief that even as he was being burnt in effigy on the streets of Karachi, his ill-tutored diplomatese was being called into question back in Britain.
Cameron faced equally vociferous critiques when, during a visit to Turkey last month, he designated Gaza as a prison camp. It was hardly an inappropriate description. Nor were his remarks about Pakistan outlandish, although it would have helped if he had acknowledged the role his country, under the auspices of Tony Blair, played in expanding the breeding grounds of Islamist terrorism.
If Pakistani spokesmen are to be believed, Zardari will, when he encounters Cameron later this week, “set him right” on Pakistan’s role in this context. But perhaps it would be wiser for him to imbibe a dose of humility before he heads to Chequers.
Email: [email protected]