Pakistan leaders praise aid promises, but public is wary

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday unveiled development projects for Pakistan ranging from hydroelectric dams to hospital makeovers in hopes of reversing Pakistani perceptions that American officials view the nation through the prism of fighting terrorism while ignoring some of its most serious needs.

On her second visit to Islamabad since taking office, Clinton announced a bevy of projects aimed at tackling major infrastructure ills that wreak havoc on everyday life in Pakistan and prevent the country’s moribund economy from getting off the ground. Most of the projects are directed at severe electricity and water supply crises.

The work, totaling about $500 million, includes two hydroelectric dams, one in the mountains of northern Pakistan and the other in the militancy-troubled tribal region of South Waziristan; 13 irrigation, water storage and municipal water projects; renovation or construction of three hospitals; and overhauls of electrical distribution systems.

The Obama administration has been working to dispel Pakistan’s deep mistrust of the U.S., a wariness rooted in how Washington treated Pakistan in the years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988-89. During Moscow’s occupation of Afghanistan, the U.S. and Pakistan teamed up to support mujahedin fighters against Soviet troops. But after the Soviets left, U.S. attention to the region dissipated.

During the second Bush administration, the bulk of the billions of dollars in aid that Washington channeled to Pakistan went to the country’s military and to anti-terrorism efforts, while Pakistan’s economic and social ills were largely ignored.

“There’s a legacy of suspicion that we inherited,” Clinton said at a news conference after talks Monday with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. “It’s not going to be eliminated overnight. But it’s our goal to slowly but surely demonstrate that the U.S. is concerned about Pakistan for the long term, and that the partnership goes far beyond security against our common enemies.”

A massive economic aid package enacted last year, known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman effort, is meant to reflect Washington’s desire to reshape the relationship with Islamabad. The package sets aside $7.5 billion over five years to help solve Pakistan’s biggest infrastructure dilemmas and seed economic development. The projects unveiled Monday are part of that package and are either underway or about to begin.

Under the leadership of Pakistani Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the military ruler driven from power in 2008, Pakistan neglected to invest in crucial infrastructure such as its power grid. Today, much of the country experiences daily power outages that can last as long as 12 hours.

The emphasis on civilian aid was praised by Pakistani leaders, who lauded the progress made by both countries in preparing a raft of energy, water and healthcare projects in a matter of months. “It’s no longer talk,” Qureshi said. “It’s the implementation phase now, and it’s action-oriented.”

Nevertheless, the Pakistani public is likely to remain wary of Washington’s intentions, in part because Pakistani society still thrives on webs of conspiracy theories that cast doubt and skepticism on the U.S. actions in the region. Strident, clout-wielding voices within the Pakistani media help perpetuate a negative image of Washington, at times claiming that the U.S. engineers suicide bombings in Pakistan, or that an ultimate U.S. goal is to gain control of the country’s nuclear weapons.

On the streets of Islamabad on Monday, Pakistanis expressed skepticism about the motives behind the U.S. aid package.

“When an ordinary Pakistani sees that the U.S. is building dams, he feels there is some kind of negative intent behind this,” said Kamran Rauf, 32, a management consultant in Islamabad. “The U.S. has to decide how they view Pakistan. Do they see Pakistan as a piece of tissue, to use and then throw away? Or do they see Pakistan as a valued partner to work with in coming years?”

Muhammad Yousaf, a 39-year-old tailor, was more blunt. “Whatever support the U.S. announces, they’re doing it to serve their own interests,” he said. “We don’t need the U.S. We want them to mind their own business and leave us as we are. We’ll be much better without them.”

Qureshi said that once Kerry-Lugar-Berman projects are completed and begin noticeably affecting Pakistanis’ lives, anti-American sentiment will probably die down.

“Opinion in Pakistan will change when they see how, through this partnership, their lives have changed,” Qureshi said. “And in these projects, we are focusing on things that will make a qualitative change in their lives.”