Jan 18, 2010

A matter of perception

The US and Pakistan governments should work together to deal with a situation arising out of anti-US sentiments

By Waqar Gillani

In certain sections of Pakistani society anti-Americanism seems to be rising. The feeling of hatred for the US exists historically in the country because of certain factors. More recently, a fresh debate has started on the US role in the region, especially after the controversial US aid coming into Pakistan in the form of Kerry-Lugar Act. The aid package was approved by the US Senate in September last year and signed as law by President Barack Obama in mid October.

The US and Pakistan governments should work together diplomatically and politically to deal with a situation coming out from anti-US sentiments. That can be done with employing good-governance to stop the silent majority of the country from seeing the aid as something bad for Pakistan.

The coming years seem to be tough for the US in this region. One way out of this situation is to ensure that affected people get the benefits of welfare projects. Certain religio-political elements, who do not see the Kerry-Lugar Act as something helpful for Pakistan, have taken to the streets with their usual "Go America go" slogans. For many, this situation has been created to make a political statement. Americans' official vehicles were stopped at various check points on the main roads in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore, which is an ordinary thing but the issue was highlighted in the press, creating ambiguities.

The Legatum Institute, a London-based think tank, has also recently produced a survey indicating that Pakistan is likely to become a more Islamist state and increasingly anti-American in the coming years. "Rather than an Islamist takeover, you should look at a subtle power shift from a secular pro-Western society to an Islamist anti-American one," said Jonathan Paris, who produced the report.

There are multiple factors of this rising anti-Americanism in Pakistan. This is intentional and also unintentional. Many people, unintentionally seeing the history of US policies in Pakistan and in this region, believe that US is doing wrong. They also believe that the culture of both nations is different. They agree with democracy and constitutionalism of US but not their culture. And this is also because of the US itself. US policies have worked to make people hate them.

Still, the US role in helping thousands of people affected by the earthquake of 2005 is appreciated. There were many US camps in Pakistani Administered Kashmir, which provided relief to the quake-hit victims. The US can develop goodwill with the people at the grassroots level by contacting them at the local level.

To some, the anti-US propaganda is deliberate. They believe that the US is not playing a constructive role in Afghanistan. They think that the US is not serious in helping Pakistan and India resolve the Kashmir issue, etc. These are the fears that emanate from the past.

Iran is another example. When in 1970s, the US issued more than 8,000 diplomatic passports to his citizens that created a serious problem. Such things started creating misperceptions in the Iranian society. In Pakistan, political discourse is dominantly religious. Vernacular media (Urdu media) and the political forces in the opposition also fan anti-American sentiments to gain political benefits.

In this situation, the growing anti-Americanism in the country and expanding American infrastructure, in the form of expanding embassy and consulates and bringing more staff for streamlining the Kerry-Lugar aid would be giving a tough time to the US policymakers in the coming few years.

If the situation remains the same, there is a possibility of rising misunderstandings between the two societies. The US will have to play a positive role. The government of Pakistan, which is at the receiving end, needs to deliver the goods to generate goodwill. Otherwise, the trust deficit between the people of Pakistan and the US will continue to increase. Ultimately, it will also be very difficult for the Pakistan government to not standby with the people. A strong commitment on the part of the two governments is required to deliver to the people so that the conflict is resolved.

There seems to be no strategy in place to deal with this issue through a discourse. The spending of billions of US dollars will make a difference only if it addresses the problems of the common people. A lot will depend on how this aid is spent. There is a need for preparing a comprehensive strategy to deliver the goods with good governance and administration by the government of Pakistan. Have the US and Pakistan governments prepared a system for proper utilisation of the aid? That is a serious question.

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