Bad romance

15 Feb 2010


In Pakistan, we hate often, and easily.

A friend recently posted a YouTube link for the trailer of a new documentary and Sundance Film Festival entry titled Bhutto on Facebook. The trailer opens with these words: “From one of the most dangerous places on earth… a land where women didn’t matter… comes the story of a woman with the courage to accept her destiny.” The clip draws from interviews of Benazir Bhutto on international television and with private reporters, shots of her from the 1980s, and glimpses of Z.A. Bhutto and her brothers.

Young Pakistanis – at home, and studying abroad – tore it apart. It was kitschy because it glorified Benazir, and it was insulting because it made us sound like monkeys. “I’m so tired of the West obsessing with her,” said one friend, a young journalist in Karachi. “She was no different from the entire spectrum of corrupt politicians and feudal landlords.” The movie, just by virtue of the trailer, reeks of “orientalist garbage and images of oppressed Muslim women,” according to a young lady working in a Karachi- based non profit.

None of these people dislike Benazir Bhutto – a few of them may have even voted for her. But the West’s support for her political campaign automatically put everyone off.

For the West, Benazir was (after Pervez Musharraf) a final bastion of liberal hope amongst a sea of intolerance, the nuances of which they never bothered to figure out. This may be one reason for her unpopularity amongst certain segments of society. The movie draws heavily from her lobbying efforts in London and Washington, which is usually a sure-fire way to draw ire from Pakistanis who follow the international news. Indeed, the fastest way to close a conversation in Pakistan is to accuse the opposing side of being backed by, or pandering to, Americans.

Nine years after the September 11 attacks, America still seems to know very little about a country it confusingly describes as its top non-NATO ally, but treats as “the most dangerous place on earth.” Equally, after decades of dealing with America, the educated upper-middle and middle class in Pakistan isn't quite sure how they feel about the US, making public opinion of the US uniformly reactionary.

There are several solutions to our grumpiness at being on the receiving end of the US’s stepmother treatment. Option one: we pick leaders who will comply fully with the superpower’s demands. Military dictators are a good way to go: they tend to efficiently repress opposition and have plenty of military aid-driven incentives to use force against militants and non-militants in the tribal areas and in Baluchistan. They pick up “suspects” with ease, deny trouble-making politicians entry into the country, and generally run the country like a police state. If America wishes, they’ll promote a few news channels, attend a few fashion shows, and coin clever phrases like ‘enlightened moderation.’ The downside is, of course, that it takes several months of protest and beatings and a cacophony of bad press to eventually get them thrown out, to say nothing of the long-term damage to political institutions.

Option two: Pick a person who has several long-term interests, including, but not limited to, re-election in a second term. Having quickly realised that any leader who comes to power in Pakistan will have to deal with the US in one way or another, we can choose someone who is on reasonably good terms with them. Could the US have rigged an election for Ms. Bhutto? Probably not – there was good money on the possibility that the original January 8 elections would’ve been much closer than the post-assassination polls. That said, her party is now getting considerable amounts of non-military aid.

Politicians are surprisingly simple creatures because they tend to follow the money. The democracies of Europe, for example, were born at least in part out of the monarch’s need for taxes from small businessmen, merchants, and traders. Today, the average British politician is therefore remarkably sensitive to unemployment and inflation. The danger has always been that in the face of corpulent loans, grants, and kickbacks from foreign donors, Pakistan’s politicians will have very little to gain from building up the economy or being accountable to voters in general. The military operation and missing persons issues will likely continue. But a few years down the line, no matter what America feels or thinks, the PPP will have to face the voters – so we hope. And that’s where their all-powerful ally can do very little.

America realises this, a fact manifest in Washington’s efforts to make US aid to Pakistan more non-military, and more “visible.” At least on paper, its objective is to make the Pakistani government look good to its own people. It may be an effort doomed to failure for several reasons (if nothing else, there’s a danger that politicians will eat up all the aid). The alternative, then, is option one – larger military aid packages. If we genuinely feel that Musharraf-era F-16 donations beat US$ 1.5 billion, of which at least some may trickle into a new school or a power grid upgrade, then country-wide protests are in order. But we’ve got to pick one of these options and work with it, because being America’s ally means getting aid.

Unless we don’t want to be America’s ally, in which case, there’s an option three: Sit in opposition.

Pre-Cold War, there was a fourth choice, of non-alignment, which the PPP’s founding father turned to during the party’s experiment with socialism. Today, not many states can count as non-aligned countries in the cause of global anti-terrorism without being slapped with sanctions, accused of harbouring terrorists, enriching uranium, or some combination of the three. North Korea and Cuba don’t harbour “Islamic terrorists,” for example, but at last count no Pakistani pundit or pulpit holds them up as paragons of anti-Americanism. Iran and pre-2002 Iraq are other examples of non-aligned states that seem to be meeting unpleasant ends.

Even “non-alignment” can’t be done in isolation, and it is unclear who Pakistanis would rather see their state ally with diplomatically instead of the US. China? Saudi Arabia? Neither holds a position that is significantly different from the US’s position on global terrorism. Such is the nature of the post-Cold War world, whether we like it or not. Not to say that there isn’t a clear choice. If anti-Americanism is truly something Pakistanis believe they will benefit from in the long run, then let’s be very clear about what we’re demanding and why. And what the consequences will be.

There is genuine fear amongst the middle classes of the fate of Pakistan, and therefore of its enemies. India wants to destroy the country (because clearly dealing with the Taliban at its backdoor is going to be great for their economy). America also wants to destroy us. Israel hates all Muslims anyway. Every suicide blast is a plot against the country by its Jewish, Christian, and Hindu enemies.

Remember, we love to hate.

What we’ve been abysmally bad at is identifying our friends, as we learnt from our bad romance with the US during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. If Pakistan, like most developing nations, is forced to be dependent on other states, then it is crucial that we diversify support, and look out for our own best interests in the long run. The US seems to have an interest in Pakistan’s long-term development, at least for now. Let’s be shrewd businessmen and make the most of it, before someone sells them a better game plan.

Erum Haider is based in Washington, D.C. and can be reached at

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.