July 1961 - Dinner in honor of the Kennedys, given by Mohammad Ayub Khan, President of Pakistan, at the Mayflower Hotel.
July 1961 - Dinner in honor of the Kennedys, given by Mohammad Ayub Khan, President of Pakistan, at the Mayflower Hotel.

Addressing young people in his jalsa last week, Imran Khan related an anecdote about the high esteem the world once held Pakistan in. He said they were perhaps too young to remember but there was a time when the president of the US would personally receive the president of Pakistan at the airport. “Aisa bhi time hota tha” [there was such a time], he said beaming with pride. Imran often tells this story to illustrate Pakistan’s diminished stature, something that he blames on the quality of our present leadership.

He was referring to Ayub Khan’s state visit to the US in 1961 where the Field Marshal was indeed feted and by many accounts enjoyed a good personal rapport with the Kennedys. We’ve all seen the photographs of that era. Tuxedos, cocktail parties, state banquets, smoking jackets, horse-riding with Mrs Kennedy in jodhpurs, (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) a ride in an open-top limo with John F. Kennedy (JFK, maybe not the best idea) a chuckle with Dwight Eisenhower here, a naughty little pat on Lyndon B. Johnson’s cheek there, who can deny Ayub cut a dashing figure?

It’s not just Imran, the old chestnut about JFK and Ayub has become a veritable cultural meme in the last few years lamenting our fall from grace. Television anchor Mubasher Lucman once did an entire show comparing Sharif’s and Ayub’s visits to the US, mocking the current premier for being received by a “traffic police sergeant.”


Imran Khan’s harping on times when Pakistani leaders were more respected has more than a touch of fiction


For what it is worth, protocol-obsessed anchors such as Lucman ought to know there are five classifications of visits accorded to a ranking foreign official by the State department. A ‘state visit’ with full honours (such as the one under Ayub) is the highest-ranking visit and can only be offered to a head of state, whereas an ‘official working visit’ such as the kind experienced by Nawaz Sharif is a more buttoned-down affair. Pakistan has only been extended three state visits in 70 years, twice for Ayub and once for Ziaul Haq, both military dictators. Some might think this says as much about the Americans as it says about us.

The myth of a once--strong, independent and self-respecting nation forging its own way in the world and admired for its integrity is a tempting one. Sadly none of it is quite true. We can only guess at the depth of Imran Khan and Mubashir Lucman’s understanding of the early US-Pakistan relationship and the complex Cold War dynamic where it was conceived, but one suspects they have not thought of it too deeply beyond optics. For such a fierce critic of the US, Imran is oblivious to how much Pakistan’s reputation in Asia as an imperial lackey was cemented in the era he now glorifies. As the rest of the continent was casting off its colonial shackles and surging on a wave of nationalism, Pakistan under Ayub scampered into the Washington camp, who were more than happy to have the dictator, fearful that an elected government might take Pakistan towards a non-aligned foreign policy. Ayub famously told the first meeting of his cabinet: “As far as you are concerned there is only one embassy that matters in this country: the American Embassy.”

Ayub Khan playfully ‘slapping’ US President Lyndon B. Johnson
Ayub Khan playfully ‘slapping’ US President Lyndon B. Johnson

Perhaps Khan sahib is similarly unaware that the first airbase leased to the CIA by the Pakistani government was not during Musharraf but under Ayub. But it’s all fine, since they came to collect him from the airport. Interesting how those exhibiting the loudest anti-American credentials are often the ones who crave their validation the most.

Facts don’t mean a lot in the PTI universe, but to be fair this wistfulness is widespread, especially online where Facebook posts about Ayub’s visit are the steady diet of disaffected Pakistanis who pine for a time when we were taken seriously. Imran’s message has a definite resonance with this constituency, which is neither liberal nor conservative but defined by a distinct politics of reaction.


The myth of a once strong, independent and self-respecting nation forging its own way in the world and admired for its integrity is a tempting one. Sadly none of it is quite true.We can only guess at the depth of Imran Khan and Mubashir Lucman’s understanding of the US-Pakistan relationship earlier and the complex Cold War dynamic where it was conceived, but one suspects they have not thought of it too deeply beyond optics.


In a recent collection of essays on reactionary thinking, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, historian Mark Lilla identifies “the militancy of his nostalgia” as the mark of a true-born reactionary. He writes: “Reactionaries are not conservatives. They are, in their way, just as radical as revolutionaries and as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings. [The reactionary’s] story begins with a happy, well-ordered state where people who know their place live in harmony. Then alien ideas challenge this harmony and the will to maintain order weakens at the top … Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes.”

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy with President of Pakistan, Muhammad Ayub Khan, at Hammersmith Farm
President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy with President of Pakistan, Muhammad Ayub Khan, at Hammersmith Farm

As a national story this narrative is tempting for many Pakistanis and has even deeper roots in a pan-Islamic feeling of civilisational decrepitude many centuries in the making. The revolutionary imagines a golden age that is yet to come, while the reactionary believes it has already passed and must be returned to. It is a narrative that looks backwards, not forwards. Like Trump, Imran’s core message is that only he can make the country ‘great again’, but in order to do this he has to remind us of when we were great, even if this borrows a bit of fiction.

As a friend remarked recently “Who better to remind us than Imran Khan ke kabhi hum bhi khoosurat thay [once we too were pretty]”.

Ziad Zafar is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.
He tweets @ziadzafar

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 21st, 2017

Opinion

Budgeting without people

Budgeting without people

Even though the economy is a critical issue, discussions about it involve a select few who are not really interested in communicating with the people.

Editorial

Iranian tragedy
Updated 21 May, 2024

Iranian tragedy

Due to Iran’s regional and geopolitical influence, the world will be watching the power transition carefully.
Circular debt woes
21 May, 2024

Circular debt woes

THE alleged corruption and ineptitude of the country’s power bureaucracy is proving very costly. New official data...
Reproductive health
21 May, 2024

Reproductive health

IT is naïve to imagine that reproductive healthcare counts in Pakistan, where women from low-income groups and ...
Wheat price crash
Updated 20 May, 2024

Wheat price crash

What the government has done to Punjab’s smallholder wheat growers by staying out of the market amid crashing prices is deplorable.
Afghan corruption
20 May, 2024

Afghan corruption

AMONGST the reasons that the Afghan Taliban marched into Kabul in August 2021 without any resistance to speak of ...
Volleyball triumph
20 May, 2024

Volleyball triumph

IN the last week, while Pakistan’s cricket team savoured a come-from-behind T20 series victory against Ireland,...