To say that the timing of the Pakistan President's visit to Britain could have been better sounds like an understatement. David Cameron's remarks about Islamabad being "allowed to look both ways" on terrorism were taken badly in Pakistan, not least – perhaps mainly – because they were uttered in neighbouring India. To his credit, Asif Ali Zardari withstood domestic calls for him to cancel his trip in protest. While there were street demonstrations and effigies of Mr Cameron were burned, the cancellation of a trip to Britain by what was described as a low-level delegation from Pakistan's intelligence agency was the limit of official expressions of displeasure.
In the few days between Mr Cameron's trip to India and Mr Zardari's departure for Europe, however, Pakistan was struck by its worst floods for 80 years. Mr Zardari's dilemma was doubled. Having decided to proceed with his trip to Britain despite the perceived diplomatic slight from Mr Cameron, he could hardly cancel on account of the floods without risking the decision being interpreted in London as a diplomatic U-turn.
It is hard not to sympathise with those critics, both in Britain – including the MPs who have refused to meet him – and back home, who feel that his place at a time of such a natural disaster was in Pakistan. Not that national leaders can actually do much to help in such circumstances, but their presence or absence sends a message about priorities and loyalties and can influence national morale. On balance, though, Mr Zardari was probably right to proceed, even if the length of his trip – after a day in Paris, he is in Britain until the weekend – is certainly contestable. A week may be a long time in politics, but it is a very long time for any leader to be abroad, especially one whose country's politics are as precarious as Pakistan's.
We await to see how Mr Zardari and Mr Cameron handle their encounter. The Prime Minister, rightly, stands by his comments on Pakistan, while Pakistani officials have warned that the President envisages some plain speaking of his own, and will put Mr Cameron "straight" on the situation in the region, on terrorism and much else. It must be hoped that frank talking on both sides will clear the air; at best, it could usher in a more productive relationship – not just on terrorism, but on Afghanistan, on nuclear issues and on Pakistan's British diaspora – in a region and at a juncture where a great deal is at stake. Perhaps the timing of Mr Zardari's visit is not so infelicitous after all.Reuse content