A trip to remember

Hillary Clinton’s first three-day visit to Pakistan as US Secretary of State was not without drama. During her tour, the highest-level visit from the Obama administration, Mrs 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 US is selling…” A 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.

On November 28, the first day of her visit, Mrs Clinton announced that Washington would give US$125 million to Islamabad “for the upgrading of key power stations and transmission lines.” The Wall Street Journal, in its coverage, reported, “US 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 Richard Holbrooke, US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, also brought together energy experts “in an effort to attract international investment.” Washington began other initiatives, from starting an energy dialogue with Pakistan last 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.”

The announcement was part of Mrs Clinton’s promise to refocus US aid on the needs of the Pakistani people, which also included US$85 million for micro-loans for poor women to start businesses, and US$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, Mrs Clinton also met with university students in Lahore, business executives, and numerous journalists, where she acknowledged the longtime “trust deficit” towards the United States 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, Mrs Clinton was at least willing to acknowledge where the US has been at fault. Her sharp rhetoric signified a desire to “turn the page” on US-Pakistan relations and address many of the grievances that have led to rising anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.

However, in her numerous meetings with civil society leaders, students, journalists, and other citizens, she faced mounting criticism of US foreign policy, as well as accusations that Washington was meddling in Pakistani affairs. During a forum hosted by the Government College of Lahore, one student asked, “The US 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 US drone strikes in FATA were connected to the current violence in Pakistan’s major cities. According to the New York 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.”

Clinton fired back in her responses, not using the most diplomatic tact. Although she acknowledged in her earlier meeting with 200 university students, “Clearly we didn’t do a very good job of communicating … what the [Kerry-Lugar] bill is doing…This is an important lesson for us,” she also took a sharper tone regarding U.S. security involvement. Clinton noted, “If you want to see your territory shrink, that’s your choice,” adding that she believed it would be a bad choice. To a group of journalists in Lahore, the Secretary of State asserted that she found it “hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to.” Al Qaeda, she said, “has had a safe haven in Pakistan since 2002…so the world has an interest in seeing the capture and killing of the people who are the masterminds of this terrorist syndicate. As far as we know, they are in Pakistan.” According to Dawn, “Clinton’s pointed remark was the first public gripe on a trip aimed at turning around a U.S.-Pakistan relationship under serious strain, but bound in the struggle against religious extremism.”

The Los Angeles Times cited a US official, who said Mrs 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.”

Although the she was unapologetic about her frank talk, Mrs Clinton did “carefully scale back” her comments on the last day of her trip when speaking to the media. Her caution could have meant 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 a refreshing departure from the oft-tired rhetoric toed by 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, Mrs 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.