Philly Inquirer: U.S. Must Strengthen Relations with Pak

By Trudy Rubin
This article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on October 4, 2009

The debate over Afghan strategy – the Af in our AfPak policy – has
overshadowed an equally daunting challenge: Can we figure out how to
improve relations with Pakistan?

Pakistan’s civilian government and army finally struck back against
the Taliban in April, after the militants threatened the capital; the
Pakistani public and press backed this offensive. But public opinion
is negative about any cooperation with the United States against the
jihadis; the mistrust of our country is profound.

Only 16 percent of Pakistanis expressed a favorable view of the United
States in a recent Pew Research Center survey. Only 13 percent had
confidence in President Obama – a mere bump of 6 percentage points
over former President George W. Bush.

And, critically, 76 percent are opposed to Pakistan’s partnering with
the United States in drone attacks against al-Qaeda and other
extremists – even though those drones killed the man accused of
murdering former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Those negative numbers reinforce the army’s reluctance to tackle the
Taliban along the Afghan border. They make it more difficult for
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to continue working with the
Americans.

Reversing these negative attitudes is essential to strengthen
cooperation against the militants. But can it be done?

One promising step is congressional passage last week of a bill that
triples U.S. civilian aid to Pakistan – to $1.5 billion a year for the
next five years. In the past, says the Pakistani ambassador to
Washington, Husain Haqqani, his countrymen considered America a fickle
friend who deserted Pakistanis when it didn’t need their military
cooperation. “So the long-term aid commitment is positive,” Haqqani
said.

So is the fact that, unlike in the past, this multiyear aid package is
for schools, roads, agricultural development, and water management,
not arms. The legislation also calls for more oversight of aid
delivery than in the past, in hopes that these projects will actually
get built.

A skeptic could be forgiven, however, for noting that Washington has
won few plaudits for previous civilian aid efforts in Pakistan,
including a recent $300 million in humanitarian relief for refugees
fleeing the Taliban.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter: Most Pakistanis are
unaware of U.S. help. They are more likely to believe an endless
series of anti-American rumors. Example: The recent baseless claim
that 1,000 Marines were about to storm Islamabad – no doubt to seize
Pakistani nukes.

One Pakistani journalist told the New York Times: “Most Pakistanis are
exposed to the popular media and to extremist clerics, who provide
this perception. The American side of the story is not available to
the people.”

Unless the United States develops a strategy for reaching Pakistanis,
with real stories of U.S. aid – not fake “public diplomacy” – the
local population will continue to view us with hostility, no matter
how much aid money we send there. That hostility translates into gains
for al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and
Pakistan, is well-aware of this problem. Yet, despite lots of talk, no
solid U.S. media strategy for Pakistan has gotten off the ground.

When I ask Pakistani colleagues what U.S. officials should do, they
quickly provide a list:

1. Pay attention to Pakistani media. Have U.S. officials constantly
appear on Pakistani TV, even hostile channels such as GEO (Holbrooke
did it) and challenge every media lie. Be more proactive. Example:
Ambassador Anne Patterson invited Pakistani media to tour the embassy
grounds and see that there are only eight Marines on the premises.

2. Put a team of U.S. media specialists on the ground in Pakistan, who
know the language and the culture and can devise new ways to
communicate with Pakistanis – whether by FM radio, or Internet, or
interviews. “Recreate a USIA for Pakistan,” one Pakistani journalist
told me, a reference to the wretched decision in the 1990s to disband
the U.S. Information Agency.

3. Publicize the good work the United States does inside Pakistan. (We
know this can work; remember the plaudits America got for 2005
earthquake relief in Pakistani Kashmir, aid that was publicized.)
Obama should sign the Kerry-Lugar bill at a ceremony with all the
Pakistani correspondents in Washington invited to attend.

4. Above all, listen to the 16 percent of Pakistanis who want good
relations with the United States, and to Pakistani-Americans.

Our Pakistani friends can provide valuable advice on how to punch
through the conspiracy theories and get Pakistanis to hear what we’re
saying. And we need to figure out how to do this – very soon.

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