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December 28, 2013

Does Pakistan have friends?


December 28, 2013


The writer has taught international relations and public policy at Boston University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and was the vice chancellor of LUMS.
Umberto Eco – the Italian novelist, essayist and literary critic – is amongst the most engaging and inventive writers alive today. An original thinker par excellence, his latest collection of ‘occasional writings’ is titled ‘Inventing the Enemy’ (2012) and takes its name from the opening entry in this collection of fourteen independent essays.
He opens the essay by recounting an encounter with a taxi driver in New York. As it turns out, it is a Pakistani taxi driver in New York. The conversation is best described in Umberto Eco’s own words: “He… asked where I came from. Italy, I replied. He asked how many of us there were and was surprised we were so few and that our language wasn’t English.”
“Then he asked me who our enemies were. In response to my ‘Sorry?’ he explained patiently that he wanted to know who were the people against whom we have fought through the centuries over land claims, ethnic rivalry, border incursions, and so forth. I told him we are not at war with anyone. He explained that he wanted to know who were our historical enemies, those who kill us and whom we kill. I repeated that we don’t have any, that we fought our last war more than half a century ago – starting, moreover, with one enemy and ending with another.”
Not surprisingly, his Pakistani taxi driver in New York was not satisfied. This, despite the two-dollar tip Mr Eco left to compensate for “indolent Italian pacifism.” As it turns out, Umberto Eco was also not satisfied by his own answer. The rest of the essay bears testimony to this dissatisfaction and is a spectacular treatise on how to invent an enemy.
While I would highly recommend the essay to all readers – and especially to the Pakistani reader who will find in it much to be amused and educated by – that is

not our subject today. Suffice to say that Umberto Eco makes a most insightful case for how we are “beings who need an enemy” because “having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth.”
Of course, practitioners of realpolitik have long known this and some – including perhaps our friend the Pakistani taxi driver in New York – might argue that in international relations having a really ‘bad’ enemy is sometimes even more valuable than having a truly ‘good’ friend. Of course, Pakistan is quite self-sufficient in enemies, real and imagined. We are certainly not in need of having to invent any more than we already have. Which is why one would like to dwell here on the less exciting subject of friends. What if Mr Eco had asked his taxi driver: “Does Pakistan have friends? Who?”
Officially, and even in popular discourse, we claim many international friendships. We proclaim some to be as deep as oceans, others as tall as mountains, yet others as old as history itself. It is, in fact, the frequency of such claims, the fervent passion with which they are made, and the relative lack of reciprocity to that passion that gives one pause, if not doubt. Maybe it is worth taking a few minutes from our popular pastime of reaffirming to ourselves the evil intentions of those we purport to be our enemies to think also about the benign neglect of those we claim to be our friends. So, does Pakistan have friends? Who?
Let us start with Uncle Sam himself. Pakistan and USA may be the most allied of allies, but clearly we are not friends. Whatever dreams of lasting friendship that might have been nurtured by Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan visiting MIT in Massachusetts, Mrs Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan calling upon Walt Disney in California, or President Ayub Khan strutting with Mrs Jacqueline Kennedy in Lahore or playfully patting President Lyndon Johnson’s cheek at the White House, are long dead. No serious voice in America would accuse Pakistan of being a friend. Nor would anyone in Pakistan reciprocate if they did.
Of course, we always have China. Or do we?
Yes, they have stood by us in the past. And they have deep stakes in our future (who doesn’t?). Clearly, our relations with them are not ‘bad.’ But nor are they as ‘good’ as we would want them to be. There is much that China still needs from Pakistan, including as a counter-balance in Sino-Indian relations. But Lal Masjid hooligans beating Chinese beauticians, Chinese engineers kidnapped in the tribal regions, the mysterious murders of Chinese mountain climbers, and the constant fear of Muslim insurgents in China being supported from within Pakistan have clearly worn down the enthusiasm.
Pakistan has been distracted by its demons of insecurity. China by its economic rise. Most striking today is how little Chinese investment one sees in Pakistan. China is everywhere in your face all across the rest of Asia, in Africa, in Latin America. Not in Pakistan. Chinese products make it to Pakistan, but Chinese investment and Chinese citizens are weary to do so.
Friends still? Certainly. But not a friendship that we should take for granted. Of course, it does not help that we live in a tough neighbourhood.
The relationship with our biggest neighbour and a people with whom we co-existed with for centuries is what it is: tortured. Even those who seek better relations with India dare not use the ‘F’ word. Even our best asha (hope) is for aman (peace), not dosti (friendship). But at least there is a genuine curiosity, if not camaraderie, when ordinary Pakistanis meet ordinary Indians. That is much less evident when Pakistanis meet Afghans.
The Pakistan-Afghan relationship is as tortured and even more tragic than the Pakistan-India relationship. In the Pakistani psyche Afghans are brethren we reached out to in their time of need – hosting many millions of them as they fled the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. At best, we seek gratitude. For too many Afghans and certainly for officials in Kabul, Pakistan is a threat, a manipulator, a meddler. At worst, they see a control-freak. Economic, social, cultural and now even cricketing ties notwithstanding, there is no deep friendship ready to bloom here any time soon. This, of course, is a great pity given all the reasons that it should not be so.
Our other western neighbour, Iran, is less tortured but there is no great glow of warmth emanating from Tehran either. From the time of Reza Shah Pahlavi to the Khomeini Revolution and beyond there have been too many missed opportunities on our part. Ties that could have been built along the long shared border in Balochistan have instead spawned distrust. Rise of sectarian violence in Pakistan has not helped. The RCD potential was already lost as the Bhutto-Reza Shah relationship soured in the 1980s, but it is really Pakistan’s perceived closeness to Saudi Arabia that has kept this relationship from ever blossoming.
So, is Saudi Arabia our friend of final resort? Other Gulf states? The larger Muslim world? Europe? Beyond? The drift of the argument may have become clear to the reader but we have clearly not run out of important relationships to consider. However, we have run out of words. So, let us park this here for now and continue soon in Part 2. Where, of course, we should also think a bit about what Pakistan will need to do to make a few more friends than we have now.
(To be continued)
Twitter: @adilnajam




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