Understanding Pakistani Mistrust of the United States

06/01/2011 12:06 pm ET | Updated Aug 01, 2011

Over the years, U.S. bashing has become a national pastime in Pakistan. This trend is dominant almost everywhere, ranging from drawing room discussions to media talk shows, and in recent months has assumed alarming proportions due to host of events such as Afia Siddique verdict, Raymond Davis's capture and subsequent release, incessant drone attacks and above all, the recent killing of Osama bin Laden.

Although it would be an exaggeration to say that everyone in Pakistan mistrusts and hates the U.S., a substantial majority does. Several surveys have revealed that majority of Pakistanis consider USA as an enemy rather than a friend. In fact Al-Jazeera-Gallup Pakistan Survey 2009 revealed that 59% identified the U.S. as the greatest threat to Pakistan. Even India, the arch rival was considered as the greatest threat by only 18% of the respondents. And Taliban, despite blowing off thousands of people, were considered as the biggest threat by only 11%.

Likewise, drone attacks, which are designed to efficiently kill militants while minimizing the collateral damage, evoke far more condemnation from the public than brutal and indiscriminate suicide attacks carried out by the Taliban. It is baffling that majority of Pakistanis feel aggrieved over drone attacks because they consider it a violation of sovereignty despite the fact that the tribal areas targeted by the drones are largely lawless with no effective writ of the state. In essence, so called violation of the sovereignty becomes a meaningless accusation because the writ of the state as well as its monopoly over physical violence, which underpin the entire concept of sovereignty, are simply absent from the tribal areas.

What makes this mistrust and hatred somewhat of an anomaly is the fact that throughout its history Pakistan has received humungous amount of USA economic aid as well as assistance of various types. In fact, Pakistan has registered its highest growth rates during times when it was also the recipient of uninterrupted US aid. It is incomprehensible how Pakistanis keep censuring the US for all of their problems, yet continuing to receive economic and military assistance which is vital for their survival.

Why do Pakistanis hate a country that has helped Pakistan so much? Explanations abound, including an oft-repeated one that Pakistanis, and for that matter a substantial chunk of the Muslim world, are envious of the lifestyle of and economic progress made by the U.S. But this begs another question: why the U.S. is being especially singled out when economic prosperity and liberal lifestyles are prevalent in many other countries.

In my opinion Pakistanis' irrational hatred of the U.S. emanates from complex interplay between the way the state has cultivated the Pakistani brand of civic nationalism, exaggerated self importance, which a majority of Pakistanis feel, and the U.S. role in the international events particularly those involving the Muslim world. And overarching these reasons is the deep mistrust of the U.S., which makes it impossible for the Pakistanis to believe that U.S. may actually be carrying any noble intentions for Pakistan.

Since independence, the state in Pakistan has tried to cultivate civic nationalism through fusion of Islam and "Honour" centered patriotism. The central purpose of infusion of religion with state has been to use it as a unifying force. Let's not forget that Pakistan is a home to various ethnicities that have a strong penchant for greater autonomy. To prevent the emergence of any ethnic based secession movement, the state has tried to unite diverse ethnicities through the promotion of the common factor of religion. While this approach has failed to check ethnic strife, it has nevertheless nurtured a mindset that is very conscious of its Islamic identity and consequently feels aggrieved when anything happens to the Muslims around the world. Even purely regional disputes of Muslims with non-Muslims have a potential of creating a strong reaction in Pakistan. In the case of the U.S., its support to Israel has created a very strong resentment in Pakistan and even huge U.S. assistance to the country has not been able to ameliorate the situation. Pakistan, like most of the Arab world, yet despite being a non-Arab country, is held hostage by the Palestine issue. Whereas Arab resentment can still be somewhat understood due to its regional context, Pakistan's ferocity apparently defies logic. Due to this particular way of perceiving things, Israeli attacks in Gaza give rise to far more anger against the U.S. than against Taliban atrocities committed within Pakistan.

Another issue is that as a nation, Pakistanis needs some citable evidence of their country's importance in the international arena. Unfortunately, since economic success has largely eluded Pakistan, things like "strategic location" and nuclear arsenal become the "symbols" of national pride and importance. Due to this exaggerated feeling of self importance as well as interpretation of the U.S. as an-anti Muslim country, a majority of Pakistanis actually believe that the U.S. is fearful of the nuclear arsenal and is waiting for an excuse to purge it. In fact everything, from war in Afghanistan to suicide blasts on the Pakistani soil, is interpreted as U.S. conspiracy to create "conducive" environment for purging nuclear arsenal. Conspiracy theorists argue that the U.S. has "bought" Taliban and is using them to destabilize Pakistan with the eventual aim of taking hold of the nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, the U.S. invasion of Iraq on flimsy grounds has merely exacerbated the situation, providing the conspiracy theorists irrefutable "evidence" of US hegemony. They argue that if the U.S. can invade a country that did not possess weapons of mass destruction then to assume that it would leave a nuclear armed Muslim country alone is sheer naivety. This belief is so pervasive that immediately after the recent attack on the navy compound in Karachi, some of the media persons were openly alleging that USA was behind the attack and the sole purpose was to create doubts about the capability of the armed forces to defend the nuclear assets in case of a terrorist attack. Nuclear Arsenal, more than anything else, is the main driver of the conspiracy theory industry in Pakistan. And this conspiracy theory mindset is deeply suspicious of everything the U.S. does. The Pakistani media has been responsible for aggravating the situation more than anyone else. Its hard earned independence has unfortunately come at the time where it has actually become jingoistic. Consequently rather than playing any meaningful progressive role, it is merely reinforcing rabid anti Americanism in order to commercially capitalize on the existing hatred. Opinions are not changed or even challenged, just reinforced and strengthened.

To some extent the suspicion ridden environment has also worsened due to the negative perception about the dealing tactics of USA with Pakistan. The impression of the majority of the Pakistanis is that U.S. does not consider it more than a client state. Instead of engaging with the people of Pakistan, US strikes deals with shady characters in the establishment and political top tier. Most of the Pakistanis feel that the case for war on terror has never been convincingly presented to them. The irony is that the elements which are striking deals with the U.S. are also highly critical of it, when it comes to public posturing. This kind of double behavior merely aggravates the negative impression of the U.S. in the eyes of masses. Apart from behind the door deals, another perception is that U.S. often bullies Pakistan and cares little for what the people of Pakistan feel. The recent issue of Raymond Davis merely worsened USA's repute in the eyes of ordinary Pakistanis who construed the release of Raymond as an affront and open coercion by the superpower.

Despite the mistrust, the fact is that both countries need each other as they are fighting a common enemy. The U.S. cannot and should not leave Pakistan completely in isolation even after withdrawal from Afghanistan as to do so would be a repeat of the grave mistake it made in late 1980s when after the defeat of Soviet Union it simply packed up from the region. However, the prevailing deep mistrust has to be removed and both the parties need to take concrete steps. Pakistani media has to exercise maturity and try to cultivate rational self interest instead of indulging in rightwing hollow sloganeering about so called national honor and violation of sovereignty. Media needs to understand that freedom of expression comes with a responsibility that it would not be used for cheap sensationalizing and petty commercial interests. Pakistanis need to be convinced that due to their irrational and delusional mindset, they are getting completely isolated in the world while at the same time strengthening forces of extremism. They need to understand that USA and Pakistan are facing a common enemy and Media can potentially play a constructive role by at least allowing space to liberal opinion. At present the media is overwhelmingly dominated by the right wingers.

The U.S. has to engage with the people of Pakistan and dispel this impression that it is just a bullying coalition partner. It has to highlight its contributions to the country of Pakistan and those are many. Above all, it needs to strengthen democracy in Pakistan and should completely discard the previous policy of dealing with the unelected institutions.