Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s first three-day visit to Pakistan [as Sec of State] has not been without drama. During her tour, the most high-level visit from the Obama administration, Clinton received both praise and criticism, with some media outlets deeming it a “charm offensive” and others calling it “a PR exercise, but who will buy what the U.S. is selling…” The devastating car bombing in Peshawar, killing at least 100 people, took place on the day of her arrival and underscored further the gravity behind her visit. Below, I assess the good, the bad, and the ugly of the past three days.
On Wednesday, the first day in her visit, Clinton announced that Washington will give $125 million to Islamabad “for the upgrading of key power stations and transmission lines.” The Wall Street Journal, in its coverage, reported, “U.S. officials said the initial disbursement is part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to stave off power shortages across Pakistan. They said blackouts are slowing economic growth and aiding the Taliban and other militant groups seeking to weaken President Asif Ali Zardari‘s government.” According to news agencies, the office of U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke reportedly has brought together energy experts “in an effort to attract international investment.” Washington also began other initiatives, from starting an energy dialogue with Pakistan this month “in a bid to find short-term and longer-term solutions to electricity shortages,” to beginning work with Pakistan’s utility companies to lessen power outages and address the lost revenue “caused by outmoded technologies and systemic nonpayment by customers.”
Wednesday’s announcement was part of Clinton’s promise to refocus U.S. aid on the needs of the Pakistani people, which also included $85 million for micro-loans for poor women to start businesses, and $104 million for law enforcement and border security assistance. And, unlike many officials who come to Pakistan and meet only with government and military officials, Madam Secretary also met with university students in Lahore, business executives, and numerous journalists, where she acknowledged the longtime “trust deficit” towards the U.S. in Pakistan because of past policies.
By reaching out beyond regimes and power players and accessing local citizens, these efforts mark a departure from past state visits to Pakistan. While some of her comments were undoubtedly harsh [see “The Bad” below], Clinton is at least willing to acknowledge where the U.S. has been at fault. Her sharp rhetoric signifies a desire to “turn the page” on U.S.-Pakistan relations and address many of the grievances that have led to rising anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.
Ask and you shall receive, Madam Secretary. In her numerous meetings with civil society leaders, students, journalists, and other citizens, Clinton faced mounting criticism for U.S. foreign policy, as well as accusations that Washington is meddling in Pakistani affairs. During a forum hosted by the Government College of Lahore, one student asked, “The U.S. has betrayed Pakistan. That’s a fact. What is the Obama administration going to do differently?” Other Pakistanis attacked the now infamous Kerry-Lugar Bill, claiming it was “tailored to constrain Islamabad’s military and nuclear program,” while many argued that U.S. drone strikes in FATA were connected to the current violence in Pakistan’s major cities. According to the NY Times, “During an interview with Clinton broadcast live in Pakistan with several prominent female TV anchors, before a predominantly female audience of several hundred, one member of the audience said the Predator attacks amount to ‘executions without trial‘ for those killed.”
The LA Times cited a U.S. official, who said Clinton’s comments about Al Qaeda “were not part of a prepared message she had intended to deliver, but reflected her own heartfelt views.” The news agency also quoted Daniel Markey from the Council on Foreign Relations, who said he “was surprised that Clinton would raise the issue of Pakistan’s efforts on Al Qaeda, given the current fragility of the civilian government.” He noted, “It seems like an odd time to come in and send this one across the bow.” U.S. Ambassador Anne Paterson, meanwhile, said her remarks “were similar to what the administration of President Barack Obama had told Pakistani officials privately.”
The Secretary of State defended her frank talk, noting,
I am more than willing to hear every complaint about the United States…[and] answer, but also to change where we can, so we that we do have better communication and we have better understanding…But this is a two-way street. If we are going to have a mature partnership where we work together…then there are issues that not just the United States but others have with your government and with your military security establishment.
However, though she was unapologetic for her frankness, she did “carefully scale back” her comments Friday when speaking to the media, noted the NY Times. The news agency quoted the official, who said during the interview,
When the U.S. gathers evidence that Al Qaeda fugitives are hiding in Pakistan, we feel like we have to go to the government of Pakistan and say, somewhere these people have to be hidden out.We don’t know where, and I have no information that they know where, but this is a big government…Somebody, somewhere in Pakistan must know where these people are. And we’d like to know because we view them as really at the core of the terrorist threat that threatens Pakistan, threatens Afghanistan, threatens us, threatens people all over the world.
The fact that Clinton was more cautious in her statements today could mean that Washington is attempting to not “ruffle any more feathers” in Islamabad, particularly given the current military offensive in South Waziristan. Moreover, despite Clinton voicing her feelings [which was arguably refreshing given the oft-tired rhetoric we hear from state officials], her statements may have been a little too honest if the purpose of her visit was to smooth the increasing strain between the two countries. In some ways, Clinton’s visit was a tremendous shift in Washington’s approach to Pakistan. It marked a significant attempt to engage the people of Pakistan, not just the parrots in power. In other ways, it may have been too much too soon for a population still very suspicious of the United States. I’ll leave that topic of discussion up to you.
Aside from the Al Qaeda references, another eyebrow-raising statement by Clinton was highlighted by the Pakistani press: “U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton termed Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani the magician of politics when she heard that he was unanimously elected as the leader of the house in parliament last year and was running the house with consensus since then with the confidence of the establishment and the masses alike.” The News, in its coverage, quoted Clinton, who reportedly turned to the premier and said with a broad smile, “Excellency you are not a simple politician but a political magician and I am deeply impressed by your way of governance.”
Errr, yeah. Someone might want to tell Madam Secretary that Yousaf “Harry Potter” Gilani also has a magical disappearing act, which he demonstrates whenever bombings or attacks strike Pakistan’s major cities.