When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan met President Obama this week, and both reaffirmed and reiterated everything that had been reaffirmed and reiterated many times before, I was reminded of America’s first attempt to win friends and influence people in Pakistan. In 1951, when Pakistan was merely four years old, some bright star in the United States Information Service got in touch with Saadat Hasan Manto, the legendary Pakistani short story writer and chronicler of partition with India. The officer proposed that Manto write something for the service. In past writings Manto had made fun of communists — including his own mentor, the seasonal revolutionary Bari Sahib — and that might have given the Americans the idea that he would be an ideal recruit for the cold war of ideas that was just beginning.
Manto, who was struggling to find his feet in the new country after a traumatic exit from a somewhat glamorous life in Bombay, said he could only write in Urdu. He was told that was not a problem. He said he would only write whatever he felt like writing. That too wasn’t an issue. They talked money. Manto was offered 500 rupees per piece. He was in considerable financial distress at the time, hounded by the censors and surviving on short stories he was selling for 25 rupees each. But he said the fees being offered were too high. They settled on 300 rupees per piece.
Manto’s first article, titled “Letter to Uncle Sam,” was a wildly irreverent account of the horrors of partition, the similarities between American and Pakistani censors and his admiration for American gangsters. The U.S. information officers didn’t know what to make of it and shelved it. But over the next three years Manto went on to write eight more letters.
Pakistan and the United States were on the verge of signing their first military agreement when Manto wrote his fourth letter in 1954. “India may grovel before you a million times,” he wrote, “but you will definitely make a military aid pact with Pakistan because you are really worried about the integrity of this largest Islamic sultanate of the world and why not, as our mullahs are the best antidote to Russia’s communism. If the military aid starts flowing, you should begin by arming the mullahs and dispatch vintage American (dry cleaning) stones, vintage American rosaries and vintage American prayer mats, with special attention to razors and scissors.” He added: “The purpose of military aid, as far as I understand it, is to arm these mullahs. I’m your Pakistani nephew, and I am aware of all your machinations. This heightened intelligence is all thanks to your politics. God save it from the evil eye.”
This was written more than 60 years ago. Since then U.S.-Pakistani military cooperation has armed more mullahs than Manto could have ever imagined.
When in the mid 1980s President Ronald Reagan feted Afghan mujahedeen leaders in the White House and praised them as defenders of liberty, Manto must have chuckled in his grave. In their quest to bring freedom to the world, the United States and Pakistani military establishments first armed the mujahedeen to fight the communists in Afghanistan. Then, Pakistan armed young mullahs to get rid of the older mujahedeen. Then, the United States and Pakistan bombed the mullahs into oblivion, only to find out there were always more. Now they accuse each other of arming the wrong mullahs. Meanwhile on the ground there is no one left to arm: A third generation of Afghans is growing up in refugee camps.
There is a slew of Pakistani generals who have gone to their graves claiming credit for the downfall of the Soviet Union and bringing freedom to the world. They never thought about bringing freedom to their own people. Hundreds of thousands of Pakistani tribals have been uprooted. By some accounts, every fourth child in the nation has never been to a school, and the children who have are not much better off.
The U.S.-Pakistan relationship has been as crudely transactional as can be. America has been saying, do more. Pakistan has been saying, pay more. And all those billions of dollars have only helped prop up the Pakistani military and a tiny elite that take America’s money while telling their people that America is enemy No. 1.
A few years ago the U.S. consulate in Karachi was planning to relocate near one of Karachi’s elite schools. Parents came out in the streets to protest, and the consulate had to move elsewhere. The parents’ desire to keep their children at a safe distance from something as hazardous as a U.S. government building is understandable. But they consider the school prestigious because so many of its students get into Ivy League universities. Some Pakistanis hate America so much they want to send their children there and want them never to come back.
Six decades ago, Manto wrote to Uncle Sam: “You will certainly ask me out of astonishment why my country is poor when it boasts of so many Packards, Buicks and Max Factor cosmetics. That is indeed so, uncle, but I will not answer your question because if you look into your heart, you will find the answer there (unless you have had your heart taken out by one of your brilliant surgeons).”
The latest U.S.-Pakistan talks reportedly were as much about democracy and infectious diseases as about which mullah to kill and which one to talk to. I hope Mr. Sharif bargained for less money. Like Manto. We remember Manto because of the stories he published, not because of what he was promised by America. There are no official records of his gig with U.S.I.S., but all the circumstantial evidence suggests he never even got his 300 rupees a letter.
Mohammed Hanif is the author of the novels A Case of Exploding Mangoes” and “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti.