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View from US: Too cold to handle

December 11, 2011

The last time Sherry Rehman played aide-de-camp to President Zardari on American soil it made headlines across the world. The duo’s comments to Sarah Palin, then the presidential running-mate, were considered over-arching. They were widely reported. Zardari opened with the “gorgeous” gloss, following up with more of the same frippery to Sarah Palin. Then came Sherry Rehman’s compliment: “How does one keep looking that good?”

Asif Zardari had been in the presidency for just 17 days. And Sherry Rehman, since the PPP’s victory in February of 2008, was running the show as a federal minister. Every ambassador in Islamabad wanted her to arrange a meeting with Zardari. “I have important business with him,” a very frustrated Egyptian ambassador said to me. He had been waiting for long to see the PPP leader. “I need to discuss how my country can help Pakistan with a multi-billion-dollar investment.” Sherry swiftly stepped in and got the ambassador an interview.

Earlier, Sherry was the centerpiece at the ambassadors’ parties in Islamabad. Locals and foreigners alike swarmed around. American ambassador Anne Patterson stuck like a gum by her side, commandeering her with whispered palaver. The next two months, Paterson was photographed making frequent calls at Bilawal House in Islamabad. She finally succeeded in convincing Washington that Zardari was to be banked on. “We need another number to call besides the Army House in Rawalpindi,” was the common refrain out of Washington.

Our ambassador in Washington, General Mahmud Durrani, was told to pack up and make way for Husain Haqqani. The retired general had wormed his way into the Washington establishment. A triumphant Durrani returned to become the National Security Advisor, a post that was created to accommodate him at the insistence of the Americans who hoped he would be their eyes and ears in Islamabad. Like Haqqani, Durrani got too smart and was fired by the prime minister in January 2009. Overvaulting ambition thus felled Durrani and his successor Haqqani.

Enter Sherry Rehman, whose trajectory I followed from the time she returned as a fresh college undergrad from America. I first saw her being fussed around by my sales manager at a newly-opened five star hotel in Karachi where I worked as his assistant. “Go get Ms Rehman a cup of coffee,” he barked at me, “and don’t forget the cookies.” I saw Sherry wince. But she kept quiet.

The next time I met Sherry was at the Star, a sister publication of Dawn. The paper is now defunct. It had advertised for an editorial assistant and asked for writing samples. I still remember agonising over that piece of paper that took me days to write and polish. Clutching it nervously, I was shown before the magazine editor. Ms Sherry Rehman. She smiled and was most gracious. Anyway when I finally came on board, Sherry had gone over to Herald, leaving Zohra Yusuf in charge of the magazine which in few months became a red rag to Zia’s information minister. It was the best in the country.

When Benazir Bhutto became the prime minister, Sherry was the editor of Herald. Sherry regularly accompanied BB. Eventually, she ended up in the PPP camp and became an MNA in 2002. A human rights activist and a gender equality campaigner, she spearheaded five very controversial bills that no man or woman legislator has dared file. When BB returned to Pakistan in October 2007, Sherry never left her side till the moment BB breathed her last. She tried to save BB’s life. Maybe one day we will get to read a first-person account from her on what exactly happened.

As we await Sherry’s arrival to the snobbiest capital in the world, here’s a caveat for our ambassador-designate: Washington will remain cold no matter how hard she tries. The generals at the Pentagon and Hilary Clinton in State Department are enough to freeze even the warmest smile that Sherry is so generous with. The media on the Capitol Hill can be cruel. Many have tried to thaw the chill, but failed. Remember Haqqani, Shah Mahmud Qureshi and Gen Durrani?

They got too chummy with the Americans who eventually let them down. And when these unfortunate souls exit, it’s the same officials who like catty housewives tattle after them. According to the New York Times, here’s what one unnamed American official obviously close to Haqqani remarked. “At times (Haqqani) behaved as a one-man think tank.”

Continuing on the Haqqani saga, the Times opines that he did not enjoy the confidence of the Pakistani army which made Washington take the ambassador’s words about his government with a pinch of salt: “There were questions about his (Haqqani’s) influence at home and whether he could be trusted to accurately convey what his principals were thinking.” This is the same newspaper that only two years earlier was all praise for the ambassador: “Mr. Haqqani speaks in lucid, well-rounded sentences that suggest his background as a journalist and commentator. He is catnip for American journalists, offering a mix of high-minded analysis and street-corner gossip.”

Booby traps await the new ambassador. “Folks in Washington will expect her (Sherry Rehman) national security agenda to be as liberal as her domestic agenda,” comments Shamila N. Chaudhary, a South Asia analyst. “She’s coming here to represent the government, and that includes the military.”

Ms Rehman will do well to watch every step she takes and every word she utters, for she’s coming here to serve her country’s national interests at a difficult time.