I was told that the five female members from the Pakistani Parliament visiting Washington this week were interested in women and politics in America, and so I was unprepared for their real agenda, which was to tell the media how disappointed they are that President Obama has adopted his predecessor's policies when it comes to Pakistan. They shouldn't have been surprised. Obama said during the campaign that he would fight the Afghanistan war harder. The escalation impacts the Pakistani side of the border, which serves as a sanctuary for Al Qaeda, and is likely where Osama bin may someday be found.
With Taliban fighters controlling Pakistan's Swat Valley and moving into the town of Buner, just 60 miles from Islamabad, the Obama administration pressed Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to take action. A military offensive launched while Zardari was in Washington earlier this month has driven more than a million people from their homes, and these visiting parliamentarians wanted me to know that a lot of Pakistanis blame America, that these military operations were done at the behest of the U.S., that this is America's war. That perception is so widespread that the Zardari government is running TV and print ads reminding the Pakistani public of the cost of extremism, from the assassination of Benazir Bhutto to last year's truck-bomb explosion at the Marriott in Islamabad.
"It's our war against the extremes," says Marvi Memon, the most outspoken of the visiting delegation and a member of the Pakistan Muslim League. But she wants to know why the U.S. isn't doing more to aid the displaced persons. Why isn't there a number to call on television the way there was for the victims of Katrina? This week, the State Department had put in place a system for people to text $5 for Pakistani relief efforts. That morning, as Memon and the others in the delegation urged more assistance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood in the White House briefing room announcing a $110 million aid package.
Memon strikes me as a Pakistani version of Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation and a passionate defender of progressive ideas. Smart and spirited, both women are relentless when it comes to making their points, and that is a compliment. Vanden Heuvel is an unapologetic liberal; Memon calls herself a liberal but her politics is less easy to label. She's been in Parliament for a year on a reserved seat for women; she supported Gen. Musharraf and doesn't think he was a dictator; she comes from a political family (her father is a former information minister), and she does a lot of television, defending her party politics, which puts her on a path to higher office.
Listening to Memon and the others was like having a fire hose turned on as the grievances kept coming. All five are Muslims, two were sheathed in traditional dress, but they are not Taliban sympathizers or fundamentalists, and they believe that's how Americans see them. They are insulted by the Obama policy of AF-PAC that lumps them in with Afghanistan, a backward nation with a much smaller population, and they seethe at what they see as a double standard that leaves India out of the mix. They want an AF-PAC-IN policy that confronts the longstanding conflict with India over Kashmir. They're so sensitive about their standing as a nation that they see slights where they're not intended, complaining that a photo of the Afghani and Pakistani presidents with Hillary Clinton in the middle represented a lapse in protocol because she is not a head of state. A picture with Obama was taken the next day.
What I found particularly eye-opening-and I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised-is their fierce dedication to their country's nuclear program. On the day of their visit, The New York Times ran a front-page story about Pakistan adding to its nuclear arsenal, perhaps with U.S. money meant to battle insurgents, while Obama and other top officials tried to reassure Americans about backup plans to secure the weapons, if necessary. Memon, her dark eyes flashing, said the nuclear program is "extremely dear to any Pakistani, not just the armed forces. It is the ultimate deterrent against India, and we will not allow this vital weapon to slip out of our hands. If Pakistan decides to build up its arsenal for our security, we don't appreciate being told not to. We're a proud nation and independent. You can't give dictation to another country."
In a written statement she had prepared for me, she said Americans should substantiate their claims about the whereabouts of bin Laden "with GPS locations," or else stop making such far-reaching assertions that Pakistan is harboring him. President Obama believes very strongly that we should look to the future rather than the past, but in Pakistan, the legacy of mistrust and miscalculation can't be set aside-anymore than it can here at home.