In Pakistan, money alone can’t buy U.S. love

By Sue Pleming – Analysis

WASHINGTON (BestGrowthStock) – Pakistan’s foreign minister declared himself a “happy” man after high-level talks in Washington this week aimed at reversing tempestuous ties between the two allies.

Despite his optimism, tensions persist from security cooperation to how aid is spent, but winning over a strongly skeptical Pakistani public may be the toughest task.

Opinion polls show less than one in five Pakistanis view the United States favorably despite a tripling of civilian aid over the next five years, and U.S. officials complain the country’s media is mostly hostile over U.S. intentions.

“This is one of our highest concerns. Public understanding in Pakistan of what the United States is doing is just not where it should be,” said U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke.

“Pakistanis came to believe that we cared only about one or two issues. Above all, the war in Afghanistan and the nuclear issue,” he said. “This is really upsetting to me.”

The hope is that by improving government-to-government relations, this will filter down to the general public, whose suspicions are so deep-set that when a $7.5 billion U.S. aid package was announced in October, it was met with an uproar rather than the appreciation Washington had hoped for.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said while there was more money on the table for energy, water and other projects, this did not translate into support for the United States and Washington needed a new approach.

“You can’t buy public opinion. You have to win hearts and minds,” he told Reuters in an interview.

JULY 2011 ANGST

The key, he said, was to create a relationship that was viewed as more permanent and wide-ranging, rather than one where Washington’s interest was seen as self-serving and temporary.

Pakistanis are looking anxiously at the July 2011 deadline set by President Barack Obama for U.S. forces to start pulling out of neighboring Afghanistan, fearing this will also result in less interest in Pakistan.

“Pakistanis must feel that you are reliable partners,” Qureshi said of the United States. “In the past there has been a history where our interests have been transactional.”

At this week’s meetings the emphasis was not only on security assistance — although that is key because of Islamabad’s role in Afghanistan — but on showing that Washington wants to help with daily challenges such as Pakistan’s daily power cuts and in fixing dams and roads.

Pakistan expert Lisa Curtis said one danger of this week’s meetings was that expectations were high for quick results.

“There may be some expectations that are not met and that will become a perception issue in Pakistan,” said Curtis, who is with the Heritage Foundation.

At a signing ceremony for an agreement to build roads, Finance Secretary Salman Siddique said it was projects like these that could have an impact on public opinion as they directly affected the Pakistani people.

AID SHIFT

The United States has shifted how it handles aid in Pakistan, moving away from big U.S. contractors popular under the Bush administration to funneling funds directly through local government or non-governmental organizations.

The downside of this, though, is that aid is taking longer to get through as the State Department must follow strict congressional rules for U.S. taxpayer funds and auditors verify the right controls are in place before money is handed out.

The public image of this week’s “strategic dialogue” meetings was one of both sides chanting off the same song sheet, reflected by a seating plan where Pakistani and U.S. officials were symbolically intermingled rather than seated opposite one another, as is often the case in bilateral meetings.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of a “new day” in relations with Pakistan, praising security cooperation that has included the arrest of key Afghan Taliban leader.

U.S. officials avoided asking Pakistan in public to “do more” — a phrase that irritates Islamabad which argues the country has suffered terrible losses in its fight against extremism, both in human life and financially.

But the recent arrests have, ironically, underscored how much more Pakistan can do, said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst.

“I think there is going to be a lot of talk about what more Pakistan can do about the militants,” said Riedel, now with the Brookings Institution.

Washington also wants Pakistan to make efforts to rein in Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based group responsible for the November 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Investing Analysis

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

In Pakistan, money alone can’t buy U.S. love