The writer is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
It was nearly 100 degrees and sunny last month in Islamabad as I stood in a dusty neighborhood watching hundreds of poor Pakistanis, containers in hand, lining up for a portion of cooked rice. It was likely their only food for the day, and it would have to feed their entire family.
I was in Pakistan with two colleagues from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, as well as others from four additional American universities, as part of a State Department-funded exchange focusing on service learning and civic engagement.
Toward the end of the trip, after several days of seminars, workshops and meetings, I purchased four enormous pots of rice and vegetables from the favorite rice man of my friends from Quaid-i-Azam University. Many Muslims, as mandated by the religion, give generously to the poor, and buying cooked rice for redistribution is a popular way in Islamabad.
Each pot appeared to feed about 20 families and cost $22. I could have paid less for only rice, but one of my friends told me you should give to the poor only what you yourself would want to eat. So rice and vegetables it was.
The scene in the rice man’s neighborhood — hundreds in line for meager rations, flanked by cars, horse-drawn carts and a full range of livestock roaming freely — seemed to confirm the popular image of Pakistan as a poor and chaotic place. So too did our security arrangements. Armed guards escorted us almost everywhere, and checkpoints were widespread. We had to pass three vehicle checkpoints and two metal detectors just to enter our hotel.
With constant stories of violence and extremism, it’s no surprise that Forbes recently called Pakistan “the world’s most dangerous nation.”
But it is so much more.
The Pakistanis I met were overwhelmingly kind, thoughtful and hospitable. They constantly spent time making sure we were comfortable, and they were open to conversations on sensitive topics. We had long discussions about Islam, Halal food, arranged marriage, women’s clothing and role in society, family life, the caste system and a host of other topics. I never stopped asking questions, and my Pakistani friends, male and female, never grew tired of answering them.
They also made it clear that they hold positive views of the United States and Americans. They said in many different ways that they needed America and hoped we would not abandon them. Although the two countries have “experienced a few differences,” as Secretary of State John Kerry said this past week in Islamabad, this makes sense in several ways.
Pakistanis realize that they live in a difficult part of the world. Relations with neighboring Afghanistan and India range from “pretty good,” as one professor told me, to “extremely strained,” according to another. Pakistan knows that it needs an anchor — a friend willing to back them up when things get tough. Many see that friend as the United States.
Pakistanis, as one university official and former army general told me, are smart, earnest and hardworking. They understand that they have internal challenges, like many countries around the world, but they will prevail because they are tough and determined.
And most important, they believe in the future of their country and hope life is better for their children. But they also know they cannot go it alone, and they desire a more stable partnership with the United States.
They are also deeply committed to public service. One of the many bright young people I met told me she wanted to get her Ph.D. in the United States. (She already had a master’s degree from George Washington University.) When I asked if she planned on staying in the United States after completing her education, she replied, “Definitely not — I want to come home and serve my country.”
There are some obstacles to better cooperation between the United States and Pakistan. Americans are concerned about Pakistan’s commitment to eradicating extremist groups. In turn, many Pakistanis strongly oppose U.S. drone strikes on their country’s soil. The future of Afghanistan, including potential negotiations with the Taliban, is a major source of uncertainty as well.
But as Kerry noted in Islamabad, the two countries have many interests in common. He called for making the relationship a “full partnership” and finding ways to deal with “individual issues that have been irritants over the course of the past couple of years.”
The Pakistani people I encountered would agree.