Had it not been for a former general’s gracious acknowledgment of the US emergency support during the October 2005 earthquake and the 2010 massive floods, a rare breakfast rendezvous with former American ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter – a well-known Pakistan sympathizer – would have been a sheer embarrassment altogether. Most of the questions that Munter, now president of the EastWest Institute, faced from an august gathering, sprang from the bitter past and a skeptical today, reminding the guest of the “bad things” that the US has been doing to Pakistan (read: drones, Salala attack, arrogant spoon-feeding attitude, and the high-handed do-more mantra).
“I would request you to stop chewing on an unpleasant past and focus on a better future,” said a visibly upset and frustrated Munter after a few, wrapped-in-history, negative, and cynical questions. Think about what is winnable and not what has happened, he advised.
The more you delve on losses, victimhood, anger and frustration, the more you obscure the strong and positive story that you can tell the world, particularly the story since the elections, remarked Munter after listening to the questions coached in the victimhood narrative and mixed with the usual regurgitation of the past.
You cannot really win the argument abroad by always projecting yourself as a country of “victims, losers, angry, and resentful people”. Nor will you win respect and acknowledgment through such narratives, remarked an agitated Cameron when reminded of the battering that Pakistan took during his stint as ambassador in Pakistan.
During his ambassadorship, the year 2011 was the most tumultuous. In January, CIA contractor Raymond Davis killed three Pakistanis in Lahore. In May, US Seals converged on Abbottabad to terminate Osama bin Laden, and in November, US-NATO Apache gunship helicopters and F-15 jets pounded two border patrol check-posts at Salala, Mohmand Agency (ex-FATA), martyring 28 Pakistani soldiers. With his unusual public outreach, Munter did try to offset the storm arising out of the events, yet geopolitics seemed to had weighed heavily on him. His abrupt departure from Islamabad was one indicator on the cross-purposes that the US diplomacy and the security establishment were working on.
Cynical questions, however, failed to dampen Munter’s excitement over the present day; Imran Khan’s perception in the West is one of a clean, honest man who is taking on the fundamental governance reforms that this country needs, Munter informed the audience. That is a welcome change and “you have a great story to tell to the world but you dont because you are angry,” he added.
He conceded that the “Pakistan-fatigue” prevents people in Washington from appreciating the changes currently underway here. But, underlined the former ambassador, businessmen, civil society and intelligentsia can really chart a progressive path to dent said fatigue. The role of traditional tools of geopolitics (security) are clearly on the wane in favour of more pronounced geo-economics and this is where Pakistanis can revive foreign interest by playing smart in areas such as trade and tourism.
Cameron also touched on China, an inevitably unavoidable subject in bilateral or multi-lateral conversations. If China has excess capacity and you can absorb that, set your own priorities, that can turn Pakistan into a hub of trade and investment, he said. He also acknowledged that the “Chinese don’t arm-twist others” as the US officials do and that is a reality of life because of the values (human rights, transparency) that the Americans hold so precious.
The massive Indo-China and US-China trading volumes – despite all their political disagreements do suggest that commerce can largely trump geopolitics and pull nations together even if political discord sets them apart.
The only way to defeat the fatigue and negativism in the bilateral relationship is to look forward with a vision for future. Extricating the “security” prism from inter-governmental dialogue will probably be very difficult but we at the private level can really push for a more people and business-centric engagement at various levels. That can and will drive the nature of future relations, he emphasized. Munter’s advice on business resonated with a number of businessmen present in the event, organized by the Karachi Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) and the Institute of Strategic Studies (ISS).
A rendezvous otherwise marred by a continuous relapse (by Pakistani questioners) into history, did, however, end on a positive note when former defense secretary, Asif Yasin, rose to remind the audience of the “invaluable US relief” sorties to Swat after the July, 2010 floods. Without the US helicopters it would have been very difficult to sustain the supply line to over half a million stranded people, Gen. Yasin recalled.
Munter’s broad message to, particularly to all skeptical Pakistanis was; pull up your socks, position yourself for external trade and civic relations and push-back the detractors with the so many positive stories that the country offers in its intelligent human resource and magnificent topographical attractions from the depths of the Arabian Sea to the breathtaking heights of Himalayan and Karkorum mountains.