About a dozen of us Old Pakistan Hands gathered together the other night with an equal number of Pakistani-Americans to break the daily fast during the month of Ramadan with an Iftar meal.
And we broke the ice too when we talked frankly about what some called the worst relations between the U.S. and Pakistan since that state was created in 1947.
At first, welcomed into the lovely home of a Pakistani-American doctor and surrounded by educated, professionals who have made new lives in America, you are swept away from the terrorism, drones, suicide bombings and anti-American rallies that have estranged our two peoples.
This was the Pakistan I remember, kind people with that melodic, vaguely English sub-continental accent. They were generous with what they had -- a cup of tea or a fine meal -- as I criss-crossed Pakistan on my first visit in 1967 or broke the fast in a Maryland suburb in 2012.
But now, frankly, I and several of the other old Pakistan hands, would fear to retrace those steps in Peshawar, Lahore and other cities and towns.
A writer and analyst for U.S. government agencies said that on his most recent visit he was not allowed to wander in the towns he had known so well decades before. Police vehicles escorted him and allowed him but a few minutes to buy some souvenirs before hustling him back to secure sites.
Have the hardliners, the bigots, the zealots the medievalists really driven such a barrier between us?
Even back in the 60s and 70s one might get a sharp question on a bus from some brazen young man asking “are you CIA?” But it was a moment only of discomfort before some older and wiser heads shushed him up and offered that dignified welcome to a traveler that was part and parcel of being in Pakistan.
That night we came together in Maryland, I met a Pakistani military officer and we talked non-stop about trekking in our younger days up to 15,000 feet in the Hindu Kush – he on K2 and I on Trich Mir – walking from village to village without any fear.
Today, that might be difficult if not impossible. Only a few hours later I would hear that zealots stopped a bus heading to Gilgit in the foothills of the Hindu Kush – they separated out the 22 Shiites and shot them all dead. Dir, Swat, Chitral – all the sweet cool havens of the mountain valleys -- have been attacked by the zealots.
We also felt the mood dampen when the Air Force officer noted that news reports said terrorists had invaded an air base north west of Islamabad – a base where he had many friends serving. All nine attackers were later killed and one airman with them.
We were dentists and doctors and soldiers and aid workers; journalists and analysts and diplomats. We broke the fast with traditional dates and almonds. Then came the potato samosa, dal, tandoori chicken, lamb stew, rice, chepati, spinach with potato and too many other dishes.
After we ate and shared quiet conversations, we were asked to speak out on the state of U.S. Pakistan affairs.
I lamented that such good friendships as we had in that room might be quenched in the torrents of hate spewing from well-known fountains of intolerance as Lashkar – i-Tayba, Jamat-i-Islami and Hizbul Mujahideen. I noted that Pakistan and India recently agreed to open cross-border trade for the first time in decades – a thaw that could overcome the harsh political rhetoric separating the two South Asian rivals.
But another guest noted that things had never been so hostile. Many Pakistanis are furious over U.S. drone attacks on militants in the tribal areas adjacent to Afghanistan. One Pakistani-American woman doctor noted that many innocent civilians are hurt in these attacks. Pakistanis also see U.S. efforts to support democracy and fight corruption as interference in their affairs. They say: “leave the money on the table and we’ll spend it.” American aid officials who must report back to Congress are unwilling to throw more good money after bad when projects fail to aid the poor due to corruption or to insecurity.
When a State Department diplomat spoke up, she reminded us of one fact that seemed to be reluctantly accepted by nearly all of us. Regardless of the ups and downs --the accidental killings of Pakistan troops by U.S. forces; the six month halt in road supplies to U.S. forces in Afghanistan; the CIA officer who killed two attackers in Lahore; the jailed doctor who helped spot Osama bin Laden; the unannounced raid that killed bin Laden; and other thorns in our relations -- both sides need each other and we must remain engaged.
One man with decades of experience in Pakistan and India said that we are close to passing a point of no return – a divorce. Americans are dying in Afghanistan at the hands of militants from the Haqqani and other groups who are sheltered by Pakistan.
Some say once America leaves in 2014, Pakistan will use these militant groups to control Afghanistan, prevent India from gaining a foothold on their Western front, and assure the Pakistani military a deep fall back zone in Afghanistan in case India’s armored forces would cut Pakistan in half in a future conflict.
Many Americans blame Pakistan for fueling the conflict in Afghanistan. But Pakistan is suffering from these terrorists too. As we saw at the time of our Iftar, zealots attacked the air base and killed the Shiites from the bus.
Some of us spoke of the upcoming elections which could mark the first time a civilian elected government will have finished its term in office without a coup. But it seemed to me that neither the thin veneer of democracy controlled by the elites nor the U.S. diplomatic encouragements to improve governance will have much impact on events.
Pakistan is simply the latest in the global arc of Muslim revival that has struck like a hurricane from Rabat, Morocco to Dhaka, Bangladesh to the southern Philippines.
The inflammatory rhetoric of Osama bin Laden and other hard line zealots have leveraged their force by their clever use of suicide bombers, internet communications, global travel and shipping. They also capitalized on American ignorance of other cultures and earnest if not arrogant insistence that the U.S. way of life is the best for everyone.
The Islamists have driven a wedge that threatens to divide us and the fine Pakistani-born people we shared a holy meal with that evening. By kidnapping the 70-year old U.S. aid worker Warren Weinstein and by attacking and killing others who gave medical and education help to the poor, they have shut down human contact which is the wellspring of good will and humanity that bonded us all together across the cultures and languages and continents.
Marco Polo himself might not have dared to make his voyage of communication and discovery had he been alive today.
As the State Department official said – we must remain engaged with Pakistan. We must not let the bad guys win. And even if we bear the unbearable burden of losing our soldiers to this terror movement sheltering in Pakistan’s hinterland, let us recall that the Japanese and the Germans and the Vietnamese killed our people too. But that today we are friends.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2012 by de-MO.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.