By David Nelson by The Telegraph
The questioning of eight senior Pakistan military officers as terrorist suspects as they arrived in the United States has all the makings of a good gag. They’d just boarded a flight from Washington DC to Tampa, Florida when a female passenger heard one of the delegation, which included a Navy rear admiral, ask a colleague if this was “the final plane to the destination”.
They were hauled off the plane and questioned, as they were on their way to a meeting at the U.S. military’s Central Command. All were subsequently cleared by security, but the officers decided to abandon their trip in protest at their treatment. Given the importance of military ties between the United States and Pakistan in the fight against terrorism, the officers’ treatment is beyond a joke, and their exasperation entirely understandable.
Pakistan is one of only two states I can think of which wages a war on its own people to meet the demands of third party countries. Earlier this week, it launched an air raid on militants in its tribal areas, killing an estimated 50 Taliban suspects.
It allows American Predator drones to strike at Pakistani militant groups Islamabad believes can only be pacified through political dialogue. It has turned its highways from Karachi to the Khyber Pass into a supply route for NATO troops in Afghanistan, and has paid a high price for it. Suicide bombers and fidayeen commando gunmen have struck every major city in the country including the training bases of its elite police and the headquarters of the Army itself.
So its officers have good reason to expect a degree of courtesy and protocol when they travel halfway around the world to offer further help in fighting terrorists on their own turf. The incident tells us a lot about the real nature of the relationship between Pakistan and the United States. The fact that they were traveling without protocol reveals a lack of respect, compounded by the time it took for the authorities to realise their error and apologise. The reaction of the anxious passenger who heard a piece of a conversation and let terror get the better of her reveals the psychological frailty of the American public and their default panic in the face of a “Pakistani”.
It must be blind panic, because on appearance alone, it would be impossible to mistake a Pakistan Army officer. Their ramrod posture, crisply ironed polo T shirts, or blazers and ties mark them out as military men, and often Sandhurst at that.
I first met Pakistani Army officers in 1990 when I stayed at an old colonial cottage belonging to the North West Frontier Province’s Public Work’s Department in Thandiani, in the Himalayan foothills. They were staying in the adjoining cottage, drinking whisky and firing Kalashnikovs at the empties in the garden. They were, despite their seniors’ propensity to overthrow elected governments, great fun.
They spoke perfect English in clipped accents and spoke about their polo triumphs while their regimental bagpipe band entertained them. That they could have been mistaken for terrorists in the United States is explained in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist which tells the story of a chance encounter of a once westernised Pakistani explaining to a fearful American how his experience of Islamaphobia after 9/11 had turned his love for the United States into hate.
The airport incident also reveals a disconnect in the battle for hearts and minds. America has given vast sums for flood relief in Pakistan and hopes it is seen as an act of friendship. But in incidents like these, the treatment suffered by individuals has, I think, a greater impact.
They heighten suspicions that acts of military and humanitarian generosity are transactional and that the real feelings of Americans are revealed in humiliating incidents at airports.
Britain is in similar territory. David Cameron’s claim that Pakistan supports terrorist attacks in neighbouring countries during his recent trip to its old enemy India reinforced the views of those in Pakistan who say “they need us, but don’t like us, and are not our true friends.”
This was seen last month when senior Pakistan intelligence officers pulled out of a trip to Britain, and urged President Zardari to follow suit, in protest at Mr Cameron’s comments. There was further evidence of this suspicion and resentment when Pakistan declined British military aid – logistics support and medical assistance – for flood victims.
Our relationship with Pakistan is complicated. Suspicion of President Zardari’s governance is widespread, Pakistan is wary of attacking some Taliban factions with whom it has had close ties. It doesn’t believe it can fight all the militant groups we urge it to attack at the same time without disastrous consequences.
I’m not arguing for naivety or blind faith, but simple respect and human courtesy would be more cost-effective in our battle for hearts and minds in Pakistan than any amount of military aid.