Young Pakistanis defy concept of `silent majority'

Middle-class students lecture U.S. officials on Afghan campaign

War On Terrorism : The World

November 07, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Zafar Habib had heard enough from the two American diplomats. That much was clear from the way he was fidgeting at the back of the room. So when it was finally his turn to speak, the words poured forth with all the strength and passion of youth.

"For years, the people of Afghanistan have endured drought and famine and war, and you haven't blinked an eye," he shouted. Then came Sept. 11, "and suddenly, your `love' for the people of Afghanistan re-awakens. And what are you doing? You are throwing them bombs, and you are throwing them biscuits."

His remarks brought down the house, with a burst of applause and stamping feet. The Americans, everyone agreed, had been taken down a peg.

This was no crowd of impoverished hotheads or radical mullahs, nor was it one of those flag-burning street mobs that have come to dominate televised images of Pakistan. It was a classroom of 60 graduate students in international studies at Quaid-I-Azam University. These were the sons and daughters of Pakistan's clerks, generals and striving middle class - the people who will someday run the country.

"It was not a softball crowd," American embassy political officer Jeffrey Hawkins concluded, after weathering 90 minutes of pointed questions, conspiracy theories and pleas for an end to American airstrikes. "They were tough. I don't think we converted anybody, but hopefully what we did was expose them to a point of view that maybe they weren't being exposed to."

But, if Pakistan's ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is counting on the support of Pakistan's much-discussed "silent majority" to keep him in power, Zafar Habib and his well-spoken classmates won't be among it.

"Musharraf has said our policy [of supporting the United States] is in Pakistan's national interest," one student said. "How can you buy that? We have been the biggest supporter of the Taliban. Things can get out of hand for Pakistan. This is a dangerous situation for us."

None of this was particularly surprising to Hawkins, who faced the class with the embassy's vice-consul, Christy Agor. Nor was he upset or offended, perhaps because he knows he'll be enduring many more such moments in the weeks to come.

Yesterday's forum was only the second installment - he and Agor met with another class last week - in what Hawkins envisions as a long-running campaign to spread the word of the American point of view, no matter how resistant the audience.

"We're really not sure how many more we're going to do," Hawkins said. "We have a boss, Chat Blakeman [head of the embassy's political section], who's a former journalist, and he thinks in terms of public relations.

"Our objective is twofold. One is to go out there and state our case. But I'd say it's just as important to go out and hear what they're saying. We're going to get a little more `out there' as we go along."

That means they'll be meeting with business and political groups, he said. Perhaps they'll dare to enter the lion's den of one of the more militant religious political parties. "Take it to a real hostile crowd," he said.

Not that yesterday's was a cream puff. At times, the Americans seemed to have as much trouble with style as with substance. Agor, only a year into her first foreign posting with the State Department, presented a cheerful front that sometimes contrasted awkwardly with the students, who brought their game faces to every exchange.

When one student questioned whether the war might strengthen the Taliban, Agor giggled slightly as she quipped, "Well, our goal is that there not be any more Taliban."

The students were not amused, zeroing in with one serious opinion after another: "You trained [Osama bin Laden] and funded him, and now he is your biggest enemy." "You are believing in the notion of `We are right and the world is wrong.'" "If we stand with you, we are your best friend, and if we don't, then we are terrorists."

The overriding emotion of the day was dismay with America's bombing campaign, and with the civilian toll it has taken in Afghanistan. One of the major newspapers that morning ran a front-page photo of a sweet-looking little girl in a hospital bed, with both her legs missing, under the headline "Bombing Victim."

Hawkins and Agor spoke repeatedly of the U.S. military's pains to hit the right targets. They also criticized the Taliban for inflating casualty totals, and for endangering civilians by placing soldiers and weapons inside homes and mosques.

No sale.

"I think that by saying this, you cannot rationalize civilian casualties," said a young woman in the front row.

A few times, Professor Rukhsana Siddiqui, chairwoman of the university's department of international relations, had to act as referee, cautioning the students against getting personal, as when one young man stated, "You are not a trustworthy people."

Siddiqui might have had the broadest perspective in the room. Thoroughly westernized, she spends two months every year at Yale University, and she suggested that her students look closer to home when searching for someone to blame. "In this entire discourse," she said toward the end, "not one person has challenged Pakistan government policy during the past 12 years. ... We are not such nice guys in all of this. ... "

That seemed to prompt one of the day's more conciliatory remarks from the students, when a young woman said, "What has become apparent is this enormous communications gap between ordinary American citizens and ordinary Pakistani citizens."

"You're right," Hawkins responded. "There is so much misunderstanding. There is so much ignorance like that out there. And that is part of what we're trying to do here."

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