Returned recently from Pakistan, mainly visiting the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Islamabad. This is an impressive new university, of high quality and high ambition, and Mason has various collaborative projects with them and prospects for more in future—including some joint educational and research efforts on Pakistani-American relations.
My reason for blogging is on the experience of visiting Islamabad more generally. A few disclaimers. I’m not an area expert, and I visited for only two days. Pontificating about Pakistan, from a brief trip to its more secure city, would be ridiculous. The nation faces many problems and harbors some undeniable risks or dangers to travelers—though it’s fair to note, given current debates back home, that this is not the only place that hasn’t managed to get a full handle on periodic bursts of violence.
Obviously also, I’m hardly the only American to visit Pakistan—I met a number going and coming, including several of my own colleagues at Mason and including far more regular travelers than I. So I’m not trying to puff myself up in these brief comments (though I took personal pride, when the passport control officers on my return noted that I seemed to visit lots of places that many Americans wouldn’t care to go to).
Finally, I have real respect for diverse local reactions to the possibility of visiting Pakistan. Each individual must make up his or her own mind about risk, and I’m not trying to suggest a single formula. Nor am I trying to demean some understandable caution.
But I do think we have some interesting issues around Pakistan and our mutual relations. At the policy level, the issues surface clearly in discussions with American diplomatic officials, who obviously must recognize that the State Department explicitly discourages travel through its advisory, but who equally obviously wish that more Americans would show up.
In the case of my visit, local reactions to the prospect of the trip were the second most interesting feature of the whole venture. Slightly shocked “ohs” were a mild version. Detailed recollections of past violence, such as a church bombing a few years back, were more graphic. I’ve never been sent off with so many expressions of fear, some of which struck me as revealingly discourteous—why send someone off by suggesting the worst?—from normally polite colleagues.
Of course, the most interesting part of the trip was that I got to see various parts of a distinctive city and culture that I found quite intriguing—love the painted trucks—while encountering nothing otherwise eventful, and meeting a bevy of uniformly kind and gracious locals, academic and other. Some police presence was obvious, but I felt no particular anxiety once I actually got there. When we walked around it was clear that we had some oddity value—lots of folks in a park wanted to have their picture taken with us, but the context was friendly curiosity, not threat.
My NUST hosts, understandably upset by arguably distorted and needlessly selective foreign reactions to Pakistan, insisted on their commitment to safety and, again, impressive hospitality, and legitimately hoped that these qualities might be more widely understood. American diplomatic personnel (and those I met were an impressive group) informally echoed.
So I would argue for some rethinking of sometimes careless reactions, and for greater balance from a disaster-obsessed American media. Prudence is compatible with lessened anxiety and some real respect for the many Pakistanis who disagree with aspects of American policy but have no animus toward Americans. I had a great time, one of my most interesting brief excursions both professionally and personally. I truly believe that our national interests, and those of this important global neighbor, would benefit from redefining our preconceptions.
All of us, as the Pakistanis insist, should pay real attention to prospects for our mutual relationships after 2014. My new academic friends expressed a fascinating mix of optimism and pessimism about the results of American pullout from Afghanistan, and there’s no question that the United States faces some serious responsibilities here—another reason for fewer knee-jerk reactions to Pakistani realities. Developing some mutually beneficial academic relationships, which is what Mason and several other American universities are trying to do, sets a basis not only for new contact but for greater objectivity, which otherwise risk being in short supply.