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Was Hillary's Image-Boosting Exercise in Pakistan a Success?

Pakistan has been in the news recently and for all the bad reasons; the most recent episode of naked terror was the deadly attack in Peshawar. Although Pakistan rose to global prominence immediately after the deadly attacks of 9/11, the surge in Taliban attacks and the deteriorating situation in Pakistan have highlighted its importance in the Middle Eastern theater. Pakistani military has got some success in driving out Taliban from the Swat valley but it has failed to eliminate their bases and they are lunging back with gusto. Additionally, their nerve center in Pakistani tribal areas is still going strong and Pakistani military has yet to claim any significant victory in the South Waziristan offensive. Afghanistan has become a major issue for the Obama administration and there are dissenting voices on troop surge. Public opinion is going against the war and it would be an uphill task for Obama to order a troop surge without satisfying all the major stakeholders.

The rise of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan -- along with its command center in Pakistan -- has started to cause big troubles for ISAF forces. Although they are conducting a significant offensive, the growing incidents of deadly encounters (eight American soldiers died in the latest attack) and an overstretched military has helped the insurgents to cement their presence in southern Afghanistan. There are also reports of Mullah Omar and other top commanders frequently crossing the Pakistani border of Balochistan. US ambassador in Pakistan, Ms. Anne Patterson has raised allegations of his presence in the southwestern city of Quetta.

Amid all this mayhem, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Pakistan to allay the fears of Pakistani military and opposition parties over Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation. The US Congress and Senate approved the $7.5 billion aid package for Pakistan in September and it was made into law after the signatures of President Obama. Largely related to spending on health, education and infrastructure development, Pakistan would roughly get $1.5 billion for five continuous years. The bill passed in the Congress without any major opposition (apart from a fiery speech by Gary Ackerman). Pakistani government has welcomed this aid -- as per the US expectations -- but there are serious concerns about the transparent spending of this money. According to a recent report by Transparency International, Pakistan ranks in the top echelons of most corrupt countries in the world.

There also have been allegations of misappropriation of funds by the Musharraf regime (US donated more than $11 billion in aid during the time). During all this questioning about transparency and corruption, Pakistani opposition parties are on the verge of launching a movement to block this aid. A bill was submitted in national assembly to block this aid but Nawaz Sharif, who remained the premier of Pakistan for two-terms and also faced corruption charges like Benazir and Zardari, is the main opposition leader and his party is a major critic of this bill (though in recent days they have become silent on this issue). Islamists parties, on the other hand, are the biggest opponent of the US and ready to wage a Jihad against the 'infidels'. Secretary Clinton met with both the government and opposition parties, including Nawaz Sharif, and tried to convey the real message of American goodwill in Pakistan.

She, however, did not meet with any Islamist parties and they are the most vocal critics of American involvement in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their rhetoric is that the bill would entail a greater US role in Pakistani political and military establishment and it would be nothing short of an intervention; interestingly, both of these allegations are false as there are no such clauses in the bill except for a greater transparency. Jamaat-e-Islami, an extremist party and supporter of the Taliban, even held a public referendum in which majority of Pakistanis rejected the bill. There was no transparency in this so-called referendum as there were no independent observers; even the election staff was from this party.

Pakistani military, on the other hand, has emerged as the most articulate critic of the bill as they think that it will undermine the sovereignty of Pakistan and put an American hegemony over Pakistan. These perceptions are far from truth as the bill does not contain any such language. Secretary Clinton met with Pakistani army chief General Kiyani and she tried to convince them to take stern action against the Taliban and overcome their fears about this aid. Fortunately or unfortunately, Pakistani military plays a key role in policy matters even during the snippets of democracy in between military dictatorships. The US cannot afford distancing the main stakeholder and Ms. Clinton would definitely take care of that.

The prime of her visit was a town hall meeting with Pakistani students at Government College University in Lahore. Although she faced many tough questions, she was able to satisfy most if not all of them. Additionally, she also interacted with Pakistani women and journalists and conducted open dialogues to dispel negative perceptions about the US. She announced generous aid for Pakistani universities and also for poor women and families in Pakistan. In total, she donated over $243 million; this is in addition to $7.5 billion in recently approved aid package. This generosity needs to be appreciated by Pakistanis given the troubled economic situation in the US; the
the Obama administration might face some serious questioning in Congress over this additional doling out of money.

Coming back to public opinion, I roamed around the streets of Islamabad and Rawalpindi and asked common people about their perceptions about the US and the billions of dollars to be spent on health and education. While some of them had a negative opinion about the US, others voiced their opinion against the double standards of Pakistani political parties. A street hawker was angry at the political leadership for objecting to the 'strings' attached wit the aid. He said that the corrupt Pakistani leaders have already looted the nation and now want to get their hands on US dollars without any scrutiny. Another one said that every lender has a right to question the purpose and spending methodology of the borrower; although this would be an aid but the US still needs to make sure that it is spent on the right projects.

Most Pakistanis recalled the great role played by the American military during the October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. While Pakistani rescue efforts were strapped of resources, it was American Chinook helicopters that carried out the most search and rescue operations. American marines and doctors played a great role in establishing medical facilities in far flung areas that were totally devastated by the quake. While common Pakistanis remember that great gesture of friendship, political parties and military are pursuing their own goals; which of course are not very helpful for the future of Pakistan.

So what should the US do in its desperate attempt to win some support amongst Pakistani people? The Obama administration reserves full rights to ascertain the fair spending of taxpayers' money and no one should object to it. If it wants to win some hearts in Pakistan, the aid should go to organizations directly working for public health and education. Let the Pakistani government continue nagging about a direct transfer of money to its coffers and the opposition bragging about their anti-US hate mongering. It's time to engage with the common Pakistani. Mrs. Clinton tried to turn a new page in US-Pakistan relationship. Although Pakistani military and political leadership might continue with their anti-American agenda, average Pakistanis are definitely wooed to some extent. And that is the real success of her trip.

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