Last April during a San Francisco fundraiser, Obama referred briefly to a visit he had made to Pakistan during his college years.
Campaign press secretary Bill Burton subsequently gave inquiring journalists a few facts. Obama had visited Pakistan for “about three weeks” in 1981, after visiting his mother in Indonesia. He had traveled with a college friend whose family lived in Karachi. He had also visited Hyderabad in India, Burton said.
Word of the visit surprised observers. The Democratic presidential hopeful has not mentioned it before while campaigning, nor has he written about it in either of his memoirs.
“[It] was news to many of us who have been following the race closely,” wrote ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper at the time. “And it was odd that we hadn’t heard about it before, given all the talk of Pakistan during this campaign.”
The news sparked considerable discussion online, with questions asked about why and how an American college student would have visited Pakistan at that time and what he would have done there.
(The remark in San Francisco was a passing one, evidently aimed at boosting his foreign policy credentials in relation to those of Sens. John McCain and Hillary Clinton. Having visited Pakistan, Obama said, he knew the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam before he became a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.)
A few more details of the visit trickled out over the following months.
The 1981 visit took place after Obama left Occidental College in Los Angeles to transfer to Columbia University in New York that same year.
Obama stayed in Karachi with the family of a college friend, Muhammed Hasan Chandoo. Now a financial consultant in Armonk, N.Y., and an Obama fundraiser, Chandoo on Sunday declined to comment. He confirmed he was Obama’s “friend” and former “roommate,” but said, “I decided at the beginning of the campaign that I’d stay out of this whole game.”
According to published reports in Pakistan, Obama in 1981 also stayed at the home of a prominent politician, Ahmad Mian Soomro, in an upscale Karachi suburb, and went on a traditional partridge hunting trip north of Karachi. Soomro’s son, Muhammad Mian Soomro, is a senior politician who served as acting president before the appointment of President Asif Ali Zardari last September.
Ahmad Mian Soomro died in 1999, and attempts to reach his son for comment were unsuccessful.
An Associated Press story in May mentioned several of Obama’s Pakistani college friends, as well as an Indian friend, Vinai Thummalapally from Hyderabad, India.
The following month the Times of India, citing Thummalapally, said Obama’s staff got it wrong – Obama had not visited Hyderabad in India but Hyderabad in Pakistan.
(Hyderabad in Pakistan is a three-hour drive from Karachi. A city of about 1.5 million people – around 750,000 in 1981 – it boasts a famous bazaar. Hyderabad in India is about 900 miles from Karachi. Capital of Andhra Pradash state, it has a mostly Hindu population of about six million and is renowned for visitor attractions including forts and temples.)
Obama may have visited Pakistan again later, when his mother, Ann Dunham, held a microfinance job there in the mid-1980s.
A Lahore-based Urdu newspaper, Daily Waqt, reported last August that Dunham worked as a consultant for a Pakistan Agricultural Development Bank program that ran from 1987 to 1992.
The project was in Gujranwala, the paper said, but Dunham stayed at a hotel in nearby Lahore, where Obama reportedly visited her. Dunham died in Hawaii in 1995.
Southwestern Asia was a risky place for a Westerner to visit in 1981, although it is unclear whether travel to Pakistan was actually restricted. (The U.S. government at the time advised against visits to Afghanistan and had recently lifted a ban on travel to Iran.)
Two years earlier, the Soviet Union invaded neighboring Afghanistan; the Islamic revolution toppled the Shah in Iran; a frenzied mob attacked the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, setting it on fire and killing a U.S. Marine and two Pakistanis; and military ruler Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq hanged former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – Benazir Bhutto’s father – whose government he had ousted in a 1977 coup.
Pakistan in 1981 was under martial law, with opposition politicians incarcerated, judges sacked, media censorship enforced and anti-government strikes underway.
The year Obama visited was also a particularly dangerous one for Americans. During a hijacking that March of a Pakistan passenger liner, three Americans onboard were singled out and threatened with death. (Interestingly, two of the three turned out to be wanted in the U.S. and Canada, respectively, for drug-related offenses. Pakistan at the time was a major source of heroin distributed in the U.S., along with fellow “golden crescent” states Iran and Afghanistan.)
Pakistan in 1981 also was awash with Afghan refugees who had fled their homeland after the Soviet invasion – two million by the end of that year. In Karachi Afghan arrivals added to simmering sectarian and inter-ethnic tensions that was to blight Pakistan’s largest city during the 1980s and 1990s.
The U.S. in 1981 stepped up funding, via Pakistan, to Afghans fighting the Soviet forces. Thousands of Arab and other foreign mujahideen flocked to Pakistan and Afghanistan to join the war.
In the early 1980s, a Palestinian ideologue named Abdullah Azzam was coordinating the jihad from Peshawar, near the Afghanistan border. Azzam, who also taught at Islamabad’s International Islamic University, visited America numerous times during the 1980s, urging support for the war in Afghanistan.
Described as a charismatic orator, he told fanciful tales of Islamic warriors not being harmed by Soviet tanks and bullets, and slain martyrs whose corpses did not decay.
Azzam’s Peshawar center was known as the Afghan Bureau. His deputy and financier was a Saudi named Osama bin Laden. Azzam is regarded by many scholars as having laid the ideological groundwork for modern-day jihad. After his assassination in a 1989 bomb blast, bin Laden took over the bureau and developed what would become al-Qaeda.
How much – if anything – the 19- or 20-year-old Obama knew about the Afghanistan jihad during that 1981 visit is unclear.
But it’s precisely the shortage of details that worries some, like veteran security analyst Bahukutumbi Raman, a former Indian counterterrorism chief.
Mulling how a President Obama would deal with each of South Asia’s historical foes, Raman said that as an Indian, he naturally felt troubled that Obama had not disclosed the Pakistan visit earlier.
“Why did he keep mum on his visit to Pakistan till this question was raised?” asked Raman, who is the director of India’s Institute for Topical Studies. “Has he disclosed all the details regarding his Pakistan visit? Was it as innocuous as made out by him – to respond to the invitation of a Pakistani friend or was there something more to it?”
Raman continued, “As I read about Obama’s visit to Pakistan in the 1980s, I could not help thinking of dozens of things. Of the Afghan jihad against communism. Of the fascination of many Afro-Americans for the jihad. Of the visits of a stream of Afro-Americans to Pakistan to feel the greatness of the jihad. Of their fascination for Abdullah Azzam …”
Raman said although having such thoughts may seem “morbid,” it was “understandable when one has a feeling that one has not been told the whole story, but only a part of it.”
“It is the right of the Americans to decide who should be their president,” he said. “It is my right to worry about the implications of their decision for the rest of the world, including India.”
The Obama campaign did not respond to an invitation to comment on some of the speculation surrounding the visit to Pakistan or to provide further details about the trip.