In these difficult days, when the roads ahead are unclear, one writes with a sense of great humility. Even the past, to an American observer such as myself, is neither so clear or certain as it should be.
But in an America ravaged by terror, an America where the innocence of not just children but adults has come up against realities with which most of the world's citizens have long lived, a few things are certain. One of them, and this may come as a surprise to the citizens of Pakistan, is that in the United States there exists today - this particular week - a greater understanding of Pakistan than has ever existed before. Much of Pakistan's political actuality has long been not just distant but invisible to Americans. And not merely ordinary Americans, but many of the nation's leaders. I do not wish to overstate my case: Even today there is in the United States only a limited sense of the political complexities in which the people of Pakistan live, and with which the leaders of Pakistan must cope. But a limited understanding is greater than none. In the midst of tragedy and confusion, at least Americans see Pakistan a little more clearly than ever before.
Americans are, I believe, a generous people. We are also self-centred, aware not just of our nation as the centre of the universe (what nation is otherwise?) but also of an immense grandeur which we think belongs to ourselves alone. And so we do not see the reality of other lives, of other countries, as clearly as we ought. For most Americans, ordinary Americans, Pakistan barely exists - a statement equally true if its subject is India, Poland or Peru, as well.
That has changed over this weekend, a period in which President George Bush met his advisers at the presidential retreat, Camp David, while the rest of the nation listened to former secretaries of state, generals, and CIA directors talk on television about what Bush was hearing. It is quite clear that Mr. George W. Bush is a different man from what he was a week ago. He has gone to school, in the toughest of circumstances. For instance, he has learned about the need for global community, and the dangers of unilateralism. He did not know this a month ago, when America walked out of the negotiations on the Kyoto accords, proposed scrapping the ABM treaty, refused updating of the 29-year-old germ warfare treaty. Mr. Bush knows it now.
Likewise, Mr. Bush has learned about the complex political reality of contemporary Pakistan. And, owing to the ubiquitous presence of television, millions of Americans have also learned about Pakistan.
For many years, Pakistan has been a piece in a global chess game, a vital cog in the power networks of geopolitics. It is still a piece in that game - as is the United States, or Afghanistan, or Russia - but it is now seen to possess its own complex reality. Not just a piece, but a place; not just a name on the map, but a vital, diverse and complicated society.
During the many years of the cold war, in which the United States and its allies were arrayed against the Soviet Union and its allies, Pakistan was often seen by American statesmen as a South Asian counter to the presence of India, that populous nation, which though non-aligned was yet on friendly terms with the Soviets.
At the time of the Afghan struggle against Soviet influence and domination, the United States supported the Mujahideen. This policy was developed not just to restrict the Soviet sphere of influence but to destabilize a rival superpower. The support had a result greater than even the policy's most ardent supporters expected: the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan was a major precipitating force in the USSR's ultimate dissolution as a superpower. As those in Pakistan well know, but Americans had until last week forgotten, Pakistan played a key role in bringing American plans to fruition: Pakistan was a key locus in which American training and arms were supplied to the forces of the Mujahideen.
But with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, geopolitics underwent a tectonic shift. The great rival to the United States - in the current American view - is no longer the Soviet Union, but China. If there is a 'new world order' as the first President Bush proclaimed, one of its constituent elements is the new rivalry between Washington and Beijing. Suddenly India, which had been seen as a potential ally of Moscow, became an American bulwark against its old antagonist, America's new rival, China. At the same time, Pakistan's amicable relations with China, and its rivalry with India, meant that the American statesmen moved their nation not only moved closer to India, but further from Pakistan.
The events of September 11, in which terrorists destroyed both towers of the World Trade Centre and smashed into the Pentagon, changed this new world order. There is a great awareness in the United States - shared by government and citizens alike - that if the perpetrators of the terrorist violence are to be brought to justice, Pakistan may be a necessary element of any strategy for doing so. The presence of a putative principal in the terror, Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan, and the protections afforded him by the Taliban, require that Pakistan be taken into consideration in every scenario the US government considers.
It is neither my place, nor my expertise, to speak of the various roles Pakistan can play or whether and how the leaders of Pakistan should respond to those possible roles. What is clear, though, and this should be reassuring to all men and women of goodwill in Pakistan, is that for what may be the first time in American history the leaders and citizenry of the United States understand that Pakistan is a complex society, that it has strengths and problems unique to itself, that it is not merely a chess piece but has its own complicated political reality.
Americans today understand that Pakistan is not monolithic, that it has religious and political tensions which need to be recognized even by a world power like the United States. Americans are aware of Pakistan's nuclear capability. They now know both of its pockets of religious fundamentalism and of the traditional Islamic path of humane moderation followed by a majority of its people. They are aware - though only barely - that Pakistan has economic problems; still, a modest but increasing number of Americans understand that eliminating terrorism means eradicating the poverty which is so often its breeding ground.
The good news, and it is indeed good news, is that today no one in America takes Pakistan for granted. No solution to the problems posed by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban can or will be forced on Pakistan. The political realities of Pakistan, the complexity of life in Pakistan, has emerged above the threshold of visibility. Americans can now see Pakistan. Not just President George Bush, but the American people, now know that the concrete reality of Pakistani life and politics must be a part of every vision of the unfolding future.
Huck Gutman is a regular columnist for The Statesman (Kolkata). He is Professor English at the University of Vermont, USA.
© The DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2001