The U.S. is trying hard to win hearts and minds in Pakistan but so far it has been a losing battle.
One thing that the United States should have learnt several times over by now about its complex relationship with Pakistan is that the Beatles were right: money really can’t buy you love. In the coming months, the U.S. Congress is expected to adopt the Kerry-Lugar Bill authorising the Obama Administration to triple non-military aid to Pakistan, translating into $1.5 billion annually, or a total of $ 7.5 billion over five years. Separately, military aid is also set to increase from the current annual $400 million.
Both Pakistan and the U.S. have held this up as a reflection of the new will in Washington to build a long-term partnership with Pakistan and strengthen democracy through development, rather than view bilateral ties through the narrow prism of the Afghan war and related security issues.
But the promise of more money has not helped win Pakistani hearts and minds, seen as crucial for the success of U.S. efforts in neighbouring Afghanistan. If anything, America’s image in Pakistan is worse off today than before.
The raging controversy over the expansion of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad is an example. Reports in the Pakistani media project the new under-construction premises as a high-tech spooks-and-soldiers centre for undercover agents and hundreds — by some accounts thousands — of Marines, that will give the U.S. a bigger “strategic footprint” in Pakistan. The $1 billion building is coming up on 18 acres in the highly-guarded Diplomatic Enclave.
The negative publicity forced the U.S. Embassy to hold two rounds of rare on-record briefings for local journalists to justify the expansion, one by Ambassador Anne Patterson. The envoy was at pains to stress that the number of Marines would be fewer than 20, strictly for guard duties at the Embassy. She also explained a planned staff increase as required to administer the larger amounts of financial aid to Pakistan.
While the envoy did not succeed in drawing a line under the controversy, near-daily incidents involving Americans are fuelling more Pakistani suspicions and animosity towards the U.S.
These days, despite U.S. and Pakistan government denials, it is all about Blackwater. Rumours are rife that the controversial U.S. security company to which the CIA has reportedly outsourced some of its anti-terror operations in Afghanistan has deployed countless personnel in Pakistan.
A recent encounter between the police and four American citizens travelling in two cars with weapons and their local aides has fuelled the suspicion. The Americans protested at being stopped and questioned but were hauled off to a police station anyway, where a Pakistani army officer had to be dispatched for their release. The popular verdict: “Blackwater.”
Residents of posh sectors in Islamabad and Peshawar are suddenly complaining of too many “foreigners” in their neighbourhood. A television channel showed close-up clips of houses in Islamabad where, it said, “FBI and CIA agents” were staying, forcing the American residents in those houses to pack up and move out within hours for fear of being attacked.
Pew survey findings
A Pew Global Attitudes survey in Pakistan this June found an overwhelming 64 per cent of respondents see the U.S as an enemy. At U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2008 election, his Muslim middle name Hussein caused much excitement in Pakistan, but the survey showed only 13 per cent had confidence in him, the lowest in the world.
Concerned the continuing negative image could undermine the new Afpak strategy even before it has got off the ground, the U.S. has been desperate to clear the “misconceptions” about its role in the region. So far it has been a losing battle.
When Richard Holbrooke visited Pakistan in June with a promise of additional U.S. financial assistance for people displaced by the fighting in Swat, , the Afpak Special Envoy urged Pakistani media to tell “the truth” about how much the U.S. was doing in Pakistan as its single largest donor.
Sadly for him, media attention was taken up by the perceived protocol breach committed by President Zardari in holding a joint press conference with a mere special envoy.
Diplomatic observers are often struck by the contrast between this and the deference with which Pakistanis view Saudi involvement in their domestic issues. Pakistanis believe the U.S. must only blame itself. Interestingly, a lot of the anti-Americanism is linked to the blossoming of U.S.-India ties.
Pakistanis see the U.S. as having forced the present Afghan war on them, and this as the reason for their country’s problems. The planned U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan has no support. The growing U.S.-India friendship, including their cooperation in Afghanistan, has set off fears that the two are plotting together to break up Pakistan and seize its nuclear weapons. The U.S. is blamed for not working on India for a settlement on Kashmir. In the Pew survey, 54 per cent respondents saw the U.S. as generally siding with India.
Pakistanis hate the U.S. for the drone strikes in the tribal areas for the alleged killings hundreds of innocents. They also see the drones as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty.
Pakistani grievances include U.S. support to military rulers, and the manner in which it abandoned their country after the anti-Soviet Afghan war. The unresolved Palestine issue and Iraq are seen as evidence of America’s “anti-Muslim” mindset.
Pakistanis see the U.S. as duplicitous, on the one hand making soothing sounds about its importance as an ally, and on the other leaking to the American press “anti-Pakistan stories” whether it is about concerns for the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, or the recent accusations that Pakistan retrofitted the Harpoon missile. Some have seen a link between the Harpoon controversy and the possible delays in the adoption of the Kerry-Lugar Bill.
Lack of consensus
Tariq Fatemi, a former diplomat and foreign policy adviser to opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, lays at least part of the blame for the current wave of anti-Americanism on the government’s inability to create a national consensus for cooperation with the U.S.
“If the anti-Americanism continues to grow, and there is no effort by the government to explain to parliament, to opposition parties why this relationship is important and what benefits it holds for Pakistan, you will see a reduction in the public support for the kind of operations that the army is presently engaged in,” Mr. Fatemi said.
For instance, he said, unless the government won national support for an operation in South Waziristan, which the U.S. wants the Pakistan Army to carry out, Pakistanis were likely to oppose it as something being done at the behest of a foreign power.
The U.S. too believes the government should be more pro-active in defending the relationship, but the PPP-led set-up, with a weak leadership already seen as far too pro-American, clearly does not want to risk it.
Diplomatic observers suspect some of the recent bad press was orchestrated by sections within the Pakistani ruling set-up in response to American pressure on the Pakistan Army to begin the South Waziristan operations. The Americans are apparently keen that the operation must begin before the adoption of the Kerry-Lugar Bill.
Virtually helpless to stop the tide of negative opinion in Pakistan, the U.S. Ambassador has now reportedly taken to personally calling media house bosses to complain about the coverage.
But the paradox, or the good news for Washington, is that Pakistanis also long for better relations with the U.S. The Pew survey found that a majority of 53 per cent respondents felt it was important for relations between the two countries to improve.
On blogs and on the streets, Pakistanis think this can happen only if the U.S. packed up and left Afghanistan, named and shamed India for its alleged meddling in Balochistan and weighed in on the side of Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir.
A simpler prescription
Shafqat Mahmood, a political commentator, has a simpler prescription. According to him, there is a significant section of Pakistanis who have a positive view of the American role, but these are the English-speaking elite beneficiaries of the educational, official, military and business ties with the U.S. He suggested it was time U.S. spread its money further so the “masses” could see some benefit for themselves in this relationship.
“People still want to know what happened to the $11 billion that was given by the U.S. to the Musharraf regime,” he said. His advice to the Americans: build free hospitals across Pakistan or construct a mass transit system in Lahore or Karachi, and see the American image improve.
Or, as Mr. Fatemi said, give Pakistani goods access to the U.S. market, which would be appreciated more than hand-outs as it would bring direct benefits to local industry and employment.
Meanwhile, President Asif Ali Zardari is off on an official visit to the U.S. later this month. Aside from the U.N. General Assembly, he will attend the summit meeting of Friends of Democratic Pakistan, a grouping of donor countries put together by the Obama Administration. The U.S. Congress too will reconvene at the same time after a recess and is expected to take up the Kerry-Lugar Bill. But there is no sign yet of an operation in South Waziristan. President Zardari’s visit will be judged at home for how well he presents Pakistan’s case and concerns, a new test of his legitimacy and credibility, as it will for America’s “intentions” and image in Pakistan.