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How low can we go?

June 01, 2012

FOR years, others and I have been writing about Pakistan’s low standing in the community of nations.

Thanks to a recent BBC survey on how popular various countries are around the world, we now know just how low we have sunk.

According to this poll, conducted among 24,000 respondents around the world, Pakistan is joint last, together with Iran. One place above us is North Korea, and fourth from the bottom is Israel. This, then, is the company we are keeping in the eyes of the world.

Many will reply to these rankings with a defiant “so what?” So plenty. The reality — whatever the overheated fantasies of armchair warriors and studio supermen — is that Pakistan is a wretchedly poor, violent and increasingly isolated country.

In short, we need all the help we can get to dig ourselves out of the hole we are in. To this end, we constantly hold a begging bowl in one hand. However, we also hold a gun in the other: occasionally it points at others, and the rest of the time it is held to our own head.

As the BBC survey shows, the rest of the world is getting tired of our posturing. In Washington, there is a growing crescendo across the political spectrum demanding a reduction or a suspension in aid to Pakistan. Several American readers have written to me expressing outrage over Dr Shakil Afridi’s 33-year prison sentence over his role in tracking down Osama bin Laden.

The fact that he was not allowed any legal representation, and was sentenced by a junior civil servant and not a judge, further erodes Pakistan’s stand that due process was followed. Clearly this was a kangaroo trial, and nobody is fooled by the pretence that Dr Afridi was actually punished for helping extremists and not the CIA.

Another reason Pakistan is in such bad standing abroad is the extortionate stand we had taken in our negotiations over the rate we want to charge Nato to transport supplies to Afghanistan. While it is perfectly reasonable to expect compensation for the damage to our roads caused by this increased traffic, jacking up the cost from $250 to $5,000 per truck was, by any standard, highway robbery.

And it is not just this 20-fold rise that caused anger in Nato capitals: by holding up military traffic for over six months, Pakistan has forced Nato to spend much more on transport. A period of recession and budget cuts is not a good time to blackmail countries that are supposed to be our friends and allies.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, our ambassador in Washington was Dr Maleeha Lodhi. When asked what Pakistan would demand in return for its help to the United States, she replied, in effect, that in a crisis you don’t “nickel and dime” a friend. This Americanism refers to the price gouging US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta recently accused Pakistan of.

$18bn in aid later, Americans see us as not only helping the Taliban, but also seeking to profit from the war in Afghanistan. Even friends of Pakistan such as John Kerry and Hillary Clinton are appalled by the hysterical level of anti-Americanism they see in our media, as well as in the actions and statements of supposedly responsible politicians and officials.

But Pakistan’s image abroad began taking a battering long before the recent deterioration in our relations with the US and Nato. From our support of Islamic extremism to our appalling treatment of women and minorities, the world has seen a country tearing itself apart in the name of religion. A. Q. Khan’s nuclear proliferation activities certainly did not help. Worse, we are widely viewed as the epicentre of Islamic militancy, training and motivating foreigners to commit mayhem in their own countries.

Our paranoid worldview has convinced vast numbers of Pakistanis that the rest of the world is out to get us. But what most foreigners would really like to happen is for Pakistan to just somehow vanish, together with all the headaches it is causing the world.

I might have missed Pakistani reactions to the BBC survey, but I don’t recall seeing any soul-searching over the rankings. Were they discussed in our interminable TV chat shows, or did our anchors just ignore these damning findings? If so, this shows our indifference to what others think of us.

But we ignore world opinion to our peril: as dangers — most of them of our own making — multiply, and our economy sinks further into a black hole, we desperately need more, not less, external help. Although our generals are the biggest hurdles in evolving a healthy relationship with the West, they are also the ones who are most addicted to US aid. Without modern American equipment and spare parts, they cannot mount a credible defence against the vast Indian war machine that they so fear.

As we are witnessing, our hostile attitude can cost us dear. Already reductions and restrictions are being written into US aid. And this is only the beginning. After Western forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2014, we will have virtually no leverage in Washington. If Obama will not see Zardari now because of our stance over land routes, do we really think he will even pick up the phone to talk to a Pakistani president after 2014?

In all probability, our generals calculate that the US needs Pakistan to allow an orderly withdrawal of equipment and in the coming negotiations with the Taliban. Again, they might be overplaying their hand. Just as they thought they could force an apology from Obama over the Salala incident by blocking Nato supplies, they feel our cooperation is essential for Western forces to pull their heavy equipment out.

The reality is that such intransigence will cause unnecessary bitterness in Washington. We must remember that militarily and economically, we are minnows compared with the American behemoth. Indeed, I was appalled to read an article by a retired ambassador on this page recently in which he casually discussed the possibility of a nuclear exchange with the US.

This offhand comment tells us why we are at the bottom of the BBC’s popularity survey.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West

irfan.husain@gmail.com