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Pakistan and US – allies without trust

June 5, 2012

In Pakistan, there is rising antipathy towards the United States despite the billions of dollars in aid that flow to the cash-strapped South Asian nation.

FEATURE

By Michael Georgy

ISLAMABAD: As Washington fumed over the jailing of a Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA hunt down Osama bin Laden, an educated Islamabad businesswoman voiced her own outrage – at the United States.

“All we ever got from the Americans is instability and violence,” she said, echoing what many Pakistanis believe is Washington’s contribution to their country and region over three decades.

“Didn’t you know Osama bin Laden was a CIA agent?” she asked at a dinner attended by Western diplomats, referring to his role in US-backed resistance to the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

“Then he was on the same side as Washington.”

In Pakistan, public opinion increasingly views the United States as a fickle, selfish ally despite the billions of dollars in aid that flow to the cash-strapped South Asian nation.

It is a view that has only deepened since US troops killed Osama on Pakistani soil in May 2011. The raid, kept secret from Pakistani authorities, was a humiliation for the powerful military and raised searching questions about whether it was harbouring militants.

Relations have soured further after a court last week imprisoned for 33 years the Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA find the Al-Qaeda chief and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

“Most people in Washington are upset with Pakistan. Dr (Shakil) Afridi goes to jail, this guy should be a hero, instead you (Pakistan) are treating him like a crook,” said one US official.

Pakistani officials told the media Afridi was jailed for treason for his ties to the CIA, but a court document released later said he was guilty of aiding a banned militant group.

Rising antipathy towards Washington makes it tougher for the government – already unpopular because of its failure to tackle poverty, power cuts and corruption – to do anything that might be seen as caving in to US demands, especially ahead of general election expected early next year.

Those constraints are evident in deadlocked talks on re-opening supply routes to Western forces in Afghanistan, which Islamabad shut six months ago to protest against a US cross-border air attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

“As the relationship has deteriorated, public opinion in both countries has become a mirror image of the other, seeing each other almost as adversaries,” Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, told Reuters.

“A great deal of the anti-American sentiment in Pakistan has to do with the destabilising fallout on the country of a decade of the American-led intervention in Afghanistan. American policies are seen as bringing grief to the region, especially Pakistan,” she said.

CIA agents seen as ‘rambos’

When CIA contractor Raymond Davis killed two Pakistanis in the eastern city of Lahore last year, it opened another wound. Washington says he acted in self-defence.

For many Pakistanis, it was a Rambo-style act by CIA agents who seem to roam their country freely. Davis was acquitted of murder and allowed to leave Pakistan after a US$2.3 million payment was made to the men’s families.

“In our homes, the eldest always has the last word. The younger ones can say whatever they like but one slap from the elder brother and they have to shut up,” said Mohammad Imran, owner of a sportswear shop in Pakistan’s commercial hub Karachi.

“America is like the elder brother or father in the house. Didn’t you see the Raymond Davis case, nobody could touch him, and had to send him off with dignity and respect.”

The main point of friction between Washington and Islamabad is the US “war on terror”, a campaign Pakistan joined after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and despite
objections from some of its own generals.

But Islamabad has been accused of being less than sincere and of shielding Afghan militant groups to ensure it has a proxy stake in any political settlement once US forces withdraw, an allegation it denies.

Some US senators have pushed for aid cuts to force greater Pakistani cooperation, and the frustrations have spread far beyond the corridors of power in Washington.

Pakistan’s leaders “need to be helping us, not fighting against us”, said Lynne McClintock, an office manager in a physical therapy practice in a Seattle suburb.

“They need to be giving us any undercover information they have to destroy the Taliban.”

Pakistan sees such comments as a sign of US ingratitude, pointing out that it has sacrificed more than any other country that joined the US war on militancy, losing tens of thousands of security forces and civilians.

All Pakistan gets in return, many officials complain, is criticism and a lack of trust.

Shaking his head in anger, one Pakistani official recalled a visit he made to Nato headquarters in Brussels. When he went to the bathroom, he was escorted by a security guard, making him feel as if he were a threat.

Fears of history repeating itself

Hardening the resentment of Pakistanis is a firm belief that it was Washington that fuelled militancy by funding Islamist guerrillas to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and then by helping topple the Taliban regime in Kabul in 2001.

The latter move forced Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters and leaders over the border into Pakistan, creating chaos in what President Barack Obama would later call the world’s most dangerous place.

“America has put a lot of international pressure on Pakistan, especially because of this Taliban business,” said Zubair Khan, who sells jeans and T-shirts.

“We had nothing to do with this war. But ever since 9/11 more people have died here than there (Afghanistan). We paid the price and we suffered.”

Pakistani officials say Americans, and especially their leaders, need to grasp the sensitivities of trying to pacify the region before judging Islamabad’s performance and accuse Washington of being naive by relying so much on military offensives to defeat the Taliban.

Many Pakistanis worry, too, the United States will abandon the region again after the 2014 pullout from Afghanistan.

Pakistan, they fear, will be left with a new mess.

Mistrust is so widespread that, even when the United States tries to do good, its efforts are often interpreted as devious.

Sitting near a shelf with books on counter-terrorism, a senior Pakistani security official enthusiastically discussed a book that argued US aircraft deployed in Pakistan in 2010 to help victims of epic floods were actually used for reconnaissance missions ahead of the Osama raid.

The suspicion is returned.

On Saturday, an anti-terrorism court in the garrison city of Rawalpindi acquitted four Pakistanis charged with involvement in the botched 2010 Times Square bombing plot.

Reacting to the verdict, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said: “It wouldn’t be Pakistan if it ceased to disappoint.”

Reuters


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