US Public Diplomacy in Pakistan

05/25/2010 06:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

(Originally published in The Hill newspaper)

Spending a few weeks in Pakistan is a jaw-dropping experience.

On a typical day, you can wake up to a newspaper article blasting the U.S. for not paying back the Pakistani government for various war costs, a grisly picture of the latest CIA drone strike in western Pakistan, or graphic charts suggesting that no country is more despised by Pakistanis than the U.S.

If ever there was a challenge for the U.S. image abroad - it is Pakistan.

Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), with the help of Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), tried to get at this issue last year by passing a $7.5 billion, five-year economic aid package to help build schools, healthcare clinics, and improve governance in Pakistan - but even that backfired. Pakistani's were so up in arms about a couple questionable paragraphs in the legislation, Sens. Kerry and Lugar had to issue an extraordinary explanation that the U.S.-tax payer money was not intended - in any way - to infringe on the sovereignty of Pakistan. Then, toss in Faisal Shahzad, and the trust gap is growing again.

A poll by the International Republican Institute (U.S.) found 74 percent of Pakistanis have a negative image of the United States - while some European polling firms put the number above 90 percent.

This public hostility toward the U.S. is troubling because Pakistan is the sixth-largest country in the world (170 million people), is confronting a tumbling economy and job loss and has extraordinary social challenges including widespread food insecurity, an abysmal education system, poor healthcare - and terrorism.

For the U.S. to turn this tide in Pakistan, a better quality of life for most Pakistanis would be a significant step forward. This is a challenge for the government, private sector, and community groups in Pakistan - but the U.S. can be helpful in a targeted manner.

First, the Pakistani public - not just the government or military - needs to be considered when evaluating the success of U.S. policy. If a particular policy is significantly unpopular in Pakistan, that might be okay, but the benefit of that action should then be clearly recognizable to the American public.

U.S. drone strikes are a contentious and divisive issue in Pakistan. According to a Pew public opinion poll, more than three-quarters of the Pakistan population is against drone strikes and 93 percent of Pakistanis said drone attacks kill too many civilians.

In Afghanistan, the Pentagon addressed a similar problem head-on last year when General Stanley McChrystal declared that protecting civilians was the top-order priority for U.S. and NATO troops, just a few days after assuming his post. This policy, even with the difficulty of implementing it, has won over Afghans.

Second, average Pakistanis are more concerned about high inflation (40 percent) and unemployment (20 percent), than terrorism (13 percent), according to another IRI poll. The U.S. Congress could help Pakistan's economy in a variety of ways, including through granting duty-free access to the U.S. market, as Nancy Birdsall at the Center for Global Development has argued.

Third, the Obama administration must discuss more openly what U.S. development assistance is doing in Pakistan. Silence does not help. Pakistan has a vibrant and free media, with deep reach into all parts of the country. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) should encourage its Pakistani employees who are implementing the health, education, and governance projects to explain the programs - good and bad - to their countrymen and women on television talk shows. More than three-quarters of Pakistanis (78 percent) cite television as their main source of information, and 80 percent find it credible.

Finally, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should return for a town-hall tour around Pakistan, perhaps with Adm. Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this time. Her listening tour was well liked last October - because it gave Pakistanis an opportunity to air their grievances with the Secretary of State, and she took their intense criticism in stride and answered them forthrightly. The Pakistanis appreciated this respectful exchange - and the U.S. needs to continue this open dialogue.

The alternative is a frenzy of morning newspaper headlines and evening television talk shows that create divisions, build suspicion and, ultimately, make everyone less secure.