One has to visit New York to understand why the Americans are doing what they are doing in Afghanistan. Seeing World Trade Center rubble that lies a few blocs away from the Roosevelt Hotel, where President Musharraf is staying, you feel an eerie chill down your spine. And it is through the prism of the 'Ground Zero' that the inhabitants of this ghost town will listen to Musharraf's speech from the United Nations podium today.
Ironically, the erstwhile 'dictator from Pakistan' is the most sought-after person in this grand gala of world dignitaries and his speech the most important, perhaps, after President Bush's address. Different countries have different interests in the contents of Musharraf's discourse. The most curious was, of course, the country that has the highest stakes.
The United States would like to see what he says about Afghanistan. How much support does he commit in public? Whether he seeks restraint in bombing during Ramazan or hands over a blank cheque of support for the US campaign?
The Islamic countries will also keenly monitor if their sole nuclear power takes a middle track of suggesting caution in using excessive force for a long time. For the Pakistan-obsessed Indians, the main interest will be to count the number of times Musharraf will use the letter 'K' (Kashmir) and how he responds to Vajpayee's speech.
But the ordinary New Yorkers would like to understand the enigma of this Supremo from an equally enigmatic country. The 'downtowners' wonder if Pakistan is with 'us' or not. New York is a city where prior to September 11 the average people never bothered about the world outside their beltway.
Even a more informed breed of journalists seemed confused. Sitting in the Roosevelt lobby, a battalion of journalists waiting for General Musharraf barraged Pakistani hacks with questions. They wanted Pakistani interpretation to the biggest question that haunts the Americans: Why do they hate us?
Huma Ali, a Pakistani journalist who was there to plead the case of Pakistani victims in New York, had an interesting answer. "It's obvious that you are looking into the effect of the WTC attacks whereas the Muslim world is talking about the causes." A colleague from The Washington Post got almost offended when he was told that the Americans could not understand this question while even a child would say that it was linked to atrocities in Iraq, Palestine and Kashmir.
Most of them were trying to make out from the conflicting Pakistani reports. The government was obviously supporting the US but the photographs of daily violence and demonstrations in Pakistan presented a different picture. Many wanted to know if Musharraf could be trusted or if he would survive this crisis. Whether the ISI was working for the CIA or the Taliban? Others wondered if Pakistan was a liberal or conservative. How can a country elect a woman as prime minister twice and yet side with the Taliban. It was obvious that after being allied to Pakistan for half a century, and honeymooning in Afghanistan for a decade, Pakistan remains a mystery to most of Americans.
A Pakistani specialist A U Khan observed that the Americans are trying to fathom the size of the iceberg from its tip. Incidentally, Columnist Thomas Friedman in The New York Times used the same analogy. "Is America the Titanic and Pakistan the iceberg we're about to hit, while we're searching for Osama bin Laden in the fog of Afghanistan? Or is Pakistan the Titanic, its president, Pervez Musharraf, the captain, America the only passenger and Afghanistan the iceberg we're about to hit?," he wondered.
His thesis was that in Pakistan what you see popping out on the surface often bears little relation to what lurks below. The biggest example is President Musharraf. On the surface he has made a courageous 180-degree turn on Taliban, the Americans are not sure what lurks beneath him. He had an interesting observation about the triple As - Allah, America and the army - the guiding principles in Pakistan. Obviously, America and the army are one side. "If their alliance delivers benefits to Pakistanis, the regime will be OK. If not, more and more Pakistanis will look to Allah for direction," he wrote.
The incorrigible Hussain Haqqani had a different theory though. He was quoted in the same newspaper, advising the Americans to understand Pakistan through the prism of India: "America is fighting Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and Pakistan is fighting India through Afghanistan."
According to Mr Haqqani Pakistan supported the Taliban largely to gain strategic depth against India. "And the main reason Pakistan is getting involved with the US now is to guarantee that it has more influence in a post-Taliban Afghanistan than India and is paid by the US in ways that will strengthen Pakistan against India." The presidential delegation had in waiting in the lobby a group of Pakistanis protesting over the racial profiling that they faced in New York.
"They should be nice to us at least as much as we are to them in Pakistan," said their leader Huma Ali, accompanied by representatives of an Organisation called Asian, Latino, African, American Mutual Alliance (Alaama) and the Coalition of Brooklyn bridges.
There was another group of PPP protesters who feared that the biggest casualty of the American pampering of Musharraf would be democracy in Pakistan. Like Ziaul Haq, it may be his turn to exploit that for another 11 years. Wars are fought on expediency and not morality. The last thing they want at this stage is democracy in the two most countries - Uzbekistan and Pakistan.
The protesters stood in a dispersed form as the security arrangements in and around the Hotel were extraordinary strict. A Pakistani official claimed that Musharraf had been given the highest security after President Bush. Though the size of the delegation may have been the smallest ever, the class distinction was well preserved. Normally, there are VIPs and those who are not. But in this case there were at least give layers of dignitaries.
The top floor was for the VVVVIPs that included Mr and Mrs Musharraf joined by his son and brother from within the US. The VVVIPs comprised Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar and native New Yorker Shaukat Aziz, then came VVIPs like Excellencies Maleeha Lodhi and Shamshad Ahmad, followed by Very Important Persons in the shape of diplomats, then Important Persons comprising non-diplomatic official staff and then plain persons like ordinary staffers. And then, finally, there is this category called journalists.
"But it's very expensive," a diplomat tried to point out when his assistance was sought on making reservation. Well, if the blue-blooded babus could have three floors of Roosevelt reserved on government money, the hacks has every right to live there on their organisation's expense.
Published in Jung, a Pakistan Newspaper. Musharraf is indeed an important person for US and India too. He need to survive this otherwise India too will face problems from the Fundamentalists there.