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Pakistanis View Obama's India Visit With A Touch Of Irritation

A black and white photograph captures a scene that could never happen today.

It shows an American president riding through the streets of a city in Pakistan in a gleaming horse-drawn carriage, as if he's the Queen of England.

The city is Karachi, in the days when American visitors were not obliged by the presence of Islamist militants to conceal themselves behind blast-proof walls, sandbags and razor wire.

The president is Dwight Eisenhower. As his cavalcade slides past an ocean of onlookers, he is standing beneath a parasol, smiling. Alongside him, waving to the crowd, is his host: Pakistan's ruler, Gen. Ayub Khan. It is 1959.

Eisenhower was the first of five American presidents to visit Pakistan. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush followed in his path. In 1962, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy rode in an open-topped limo through those same streets alongside the same general, on an unofficial visit without her husband.

President Obama's just-completed trip to India has prompted Pakistanis to leaf back through their visitors' book with an aggrieved eye. There's irritation here that Obama has visited New Delhi twice, yet has bypassed Pakistan.

It has not escaped the notice of Pakistanis that all five of those American presidents were guests of Pakistani military dictators. Pakistan has spent almost half of its 68-year history under civilian government. Occupants of the White House have only ever dropped by when generals were in charge.

This reinforces a view among Pakistanis that — even by the rough-house standards of international geopolitics — U.S. policy tends to cynical pragmatism, cultivating ties when it's in Washington's interests, and only when it knows it'll get concrete results. After all, dictators can deliver.

Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi talk in New Delhi. Obama's visit to Pakistan's much larger, more prosperous neighbor was destined to grate on Pakistani nerves.
Carolyn Kaster / AP
Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi talk in New Delhi. Obama's visit to Pakistan's much larger, more prosperous neighbor was destined to grate on Pakistani nerves.

It's very easy to find Americans and others who'll make a parallel charge against Pakistan, citing Islamabad's record of brazenly pocketing billions in U.S. military assistance while continuing covertly to support selected Islamist militant outfits, especially in Afghanistan.

Obama's visit this week to Pakistan's much larger, more prosperous and more important neighbor was always destined to grate on Pakistani nerves. A sense of pique hangs in the foggy winter air.

This is partly because Pakistan's always-hostile relationship with India — they've fought three wars — is going through a particularly turbulent phase. Bullets, missiles and accusations have been flying back and forth in Kashmir, the disputed territory that lies at the heart of South Asia's tensions.

The sight of the U.S. president engulfing India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a bear hug caused many winces. Here, Modi is perceived as a hard-line Hindu nationalist, who has yet to explain satisfactorily his role in the sectarian killing of many hundreds of Muslims when he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat.

As dazzling photo-op images of the Obamas' India trip percolate through the world's media, Pakistan is once again consoling itself by pulling out its China card. It cannot be a coincidence that, while Obama and Modi were entwined in that bear hug, Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, was on a high-profile official visit to Beijing.

The chief's message was clear: There's another superpower out there. If the West doesn't like us, we can always look east. Pakistan's media have been full of headlines citing a top Chinese official describing Pakistan as an "irreplaceable all-weather friend." Note the "all-weather" — unlike those fair-weather Americans.

Yet nothing's ever clear-cut in South Asia's hard-nosed 21st century gamesmanship. Pakistan's troubled alliance with the U.S. has survived many bumps in the road. It has actually taken an upward turn recently, after hitting the seabed in 2011 with the discovery — and elimination — of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil.

Last month's massacre by the Pakistani Taliban of 132 children at an army-run school in Peshawar has helped rally people around a common cause in the battle against Islamist militants. The U.S. is (guardedly) applauding Pakistan's military offensive against the Taliban in North Waziristan. The mood music around this month's visit by Secretary of State John Kerry was positive.

The U.S. also needs Pakistan's help, once again. Neighboring Afghanistan could easily descend into civil war. Cooperative relations between Islamabad and Kabul are crucial to prevent such a war. Relations between the two have been fractious, but are much improved since President Ashraf Ghani took office in Afghanistan. Pakistan's civilian government genuinely seems committed to working with him.

Pakistanis will surely feel that's worth an American bear hug.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.