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Saad Khan Headshot

Time to Interact with Average Pakistanis

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There has been a lot of talk about how to win the hearts and minds of Pakistanis. Despite all the discussion in media and the recent announcement of a $7.5 billion aid package for the country, Americans are fretting about the dogmas that entangle the Pakistani military's mindset.

The Pakistani military establishment loves American aid with no strings attached, but Americans should be more concerned about another issue: the lack of consideration of the opinions of average Pakistanis.

What do average Pakistanis think about Americans? Do they really hate them? The answer may come a surprise: Pakistanis do not hate Americans and they do not maintain aspirations or dreams of American destruction. In fact, many would jump on the next available flight to the United States if they had the chance. Pakistanis share their Americans drams with people in Peru, China, and Gambia. The only difference is the international portrayal and perception of Pakistan.

Pakistanis selling novelty bags on the streets of Karachi or commuting in the shabby public transport system of Islamabad, do not like the manner in which the United States doles out cash to the Pakistani government - the cash ultimately ends up in the personal bank account of political and military leadership. The average Pakistani wants to directly interact with Americans; they want direct aid that can be used to bolster eduction, and health and public infrastructure development.

The latest aid package of $7.5 billion addresses these issues in promising the construction of schools, roads and health care facilities. The United States government has even gone a step further - much to the chagrin of Pakistani government - by involving non-governmental organizations to implement these projects.

There are, however, signs and symptoms that suggest that certain elements of Pakistani government are intent on making this aid go down the drain. They do not want a direct interaction between Americans with Pakistanis. They would, however, not object if Americans continue with the old system of blindly donating to corrupt Pakistani regimes.

There have been reports of Pakistani intelligence agencies harassing American diplomats. The Pakistani government has not issued visas to dozens of Americans who were coming to assist the Pakistani military in their fight against the Taliban. Security experts, technical staff, accountants and other personnel have been denied visas. Those already working have to leave because they are not getting visa extensions. Even the last accountant in the American embassy would soon leave the country and this would practically halt the transfer of funds to Pakistanis.

I have seen the Islamabad Police stop a female diplomat and screen every part of her car for a full 20 minutes. They ignored aside her diplomatic immunity and only let her go after they were satisfied that she was not carrying any "suspicious" items. The mentality needs to be challenged at the diplomatic level as the Pakistani military and torchbearers of patriotism are blighting the already checkered reputation of Pakistan in the diplomatic circles.

Unfortunately, I do not see that happening. The nexus of military and conservatives in Pakistan is strong enough to silence the majority of peace-loving Pakistanis. The only workable solution is facilitating interaction through media and Internet. A sizable number of young Pakistanis browse Internet and would love to access websites where they could find "real" and accurate information about the United States and to interact with their American counterparts. It would cost virtually nothing, but would create a great platform for long lasting interaction.

An even better idea for befriending Pakistanis is by opening a cultural institute. American Centers were wildly popular among the urban youth of Pakistan until their closures after 9/11. Even the most ardent opponents of the United States, including hardliners-turned-Jihadis, used to frequent the library and lecture halls of these centers in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

It is about time that the United States amends its priorities and generates interaction with average Pakistani citizens. A dedicated approach will not turn Pakistan into a true ally unless and until the all powerful military establishment no longer emerges out of its geopolitical fallacies. Pakistanis must be encouraged to challenge their government for its double standards towards the United States. At minimum, this will help change the negative perception of the United States in the country, and that is exactly what America needs in this region.