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Robert Gates brings praise and pressure to Pakistan

Seeking to defuse rampant anti-American sentiment, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates delivered Thursday on a long-standing request of Pakistan’s: providing a dozen drone aircraft to the nation’s military.

Gates, on the first day of a visit here, urged government officials to build on their offensives against militants as he tried to reassure a skeptical Pakistani public about U.S. aims in the region.

Defense officials said the U.S. would give Pakistan 12 Shadow UAVs, unarmed surveillance drones that can be used to spy on militants. Although smaller than the Predator, the Shadow, with a 14-foot wingspan, has a far greater range and flight time than the drones Pakistan operates.

Gates’ trip is designed to try to improve the Pakistani public’s view of the United States, which has been battered in recent years by controversies over American drone strikes near the border with Afghanistan and a feeling that Pakistan has been pushed by its superpower ally to fight Islamist militancy but then been unappreciated despite its efforts.

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Pakistan and the United States have long had a problematic relationship, but at no time in recent memory has the level of anti-Americanism appeared higher. A survey in August by the Pew Research Center in Washington showed that 64% of Pakistani respondents viewed the U.S. as an enemy, and a poll released in October by the University of Maryland found that 90% of Pakistani respondents thought the U.S. abused its power.

Fueled by quarrels over both U.S. military and economic assistance efforts, the anger is rippling through the Pakistani news media and undercutting diplomatic relations. “America is experiencing its most detested hour,” said Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a Dawn newspaper columnist. “It has never been hated across the board so much . . . as it is today.”

Gates’ visit features the usual meetings with senior political and military leaders. But the Defense secretary is also doing significant public outreach, including television interviews and a newspaper op-ed piece, trying to improve America’s battered reputation.

Gates said he was using the visit to emphasize -- both with government officials and the public -- that the U.S. would not abandon the region as it did in the 1980s.

“The main focus of my visit is . . . to provide reassurances that we are in this for the long haul and intend to continue to be a partner of theirs for far into the future,” Gates said.

At this point, many Pakistanis subscribe to conspiracy theories about U.S. activities in the country.

Stories about “suspicious” behavior by American diplomats and the military have recently circulated widely, including reports that envoys entered the country illegally to nose around secret areas, and that the U.S. Embassy purchased land in a prime ministerial compound and was kicking out members of the prime minister’s staff.

In an apparent upping of the ante, the Baluchistan provincial government recently arrested two U.S. consular employees for allegedly driving in the sensitive Gwadar port area with a fake license plate. “Pakistan is not a colony of the U.S. but a sovereign state,” sniffed a recent editorial in the Daily Times.

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U.S. Embassy officials have denied any wrongdoing in the Gwadar incident and have recently ramped up their public affairs efforts to confront what they regard as printed falsehoods.

“There’s a realization that these reports don’t have to be egregious to damage bilateral relations,” said Richard Snelsire, the embassy spokesman. “There’s a cumulative effect on average readers as they see these stories day after day that sets the tone.”

Gates, in an interview with the Pakistani cable channel Express News, tried to take on some of the accusations against the U.S., asserting that Washington had no desire to take Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, divide the country or split the Islamic world.

“We are aware of these conspiracy theories as much as anyone,” Gates said. “And they are all nonsense.”

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In a second interview, with Pakistani state television, Gates was repeatedly pressed on the Indian threat to Pakistan. Gates bluntly replied that Islamic militancy, not India, is the more serious threat.

“That is the threat where suicide bombers have struck Pakistani cities, have killed Pakistani military officers. . . . This is the threat that faces Pakistan more immediately,” Gates said.

During the visit, his first here since February 2007, Gates is explicitly calling for the government in Islamabad to stop trying to make distinctions among extremist groups, backing some that officials think will support their interests while launching attacks against others.

“Only by pressuring all of these groups on both sides of the border will Afghanistan and Pakistan be able to rid themselves of this scourge for good, to destroy those who promote the use of terror here and abroad,” Gates wrote in an op-ed article in the Pakistani newspaper the News.

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U.S. officials want Pakistan to expand its military offensives to areas where Taliban groups active in Afghanistan find cross-border havens, most notably North Waziristan.

Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told reporters that it would be six months to a year before the military would be able to expand its offensive into that region.

“With all these operations, we are not in a position to get into an overstretch,” he said.

But senior U.S. Defense officials said after Gates had spoken Thursday that it was clear the Pakistani military has “the will” to take on militants in North Waziristan.

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“We are obviously encouraging of the Pakistani military pursuing these terrorists wherever they may be, but we are not prescribing any timeline,” Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said.

Gates must be careful about how he applies pressure on Pakistan to increase its military action against militants. Neither the people nor the government reacts well to public demands from Washington, and a Pakistani government spokesman scolded Gates on Wednesday for comments he made in India about pressing Islamabad to do more about extremists.

Many Pakistanis believe U.S. military pressure in Afghanistan has pushed more militants into Pakistan, where they have launched deadly attacks on this country’s cities.

“By being American allies, we are becoming more of a target,” Gulzar Ahmad, 42, a government worker, said recently as he stood outside an Islamabad mosque. “Our government is supporting American infidels against Muslims and allowing foreign spies to roam freely in our country.”

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Even those who support U.S. efforts say Washington sometimes undercuts its own advances, including increasing aid for schools, healthcare and roads and greater Pakistani ownership of the counterinsurgency fight -- with clumsy decisions that seem arrogant.

Granting the Pakistani government the new drones could improve its stature among critics who argue that it has been little more than a lap dog to American interests. Some observers have said that joint management of the entire drone program, including those craft used to strike at Taliban and Al Qaeda targets, would go even further to improve Islamabad’s standing.

“Right now it’s seen as a poodle,” military analyst Talat Masood, a former army lieutenant general, said recently. “At least it would become a bulldog.”

Although the U.S. has said it would like to expand the help it offers Pakistan on military training, Gates emphasized Thursday that it was up to Islamabad to decide whether, when and how to expand the cooperation.

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“We have quite an array” of resources and equipment to offer, Gates said. “But it is the Pakistanis who have their foot on the accelerator, not us, and so we have to do that in a way that’s comfortable for them.”

julian.barnes@latimes.com

mark.magnier@latimes.com


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