Pakistan tells U.S. it's time to pay up
Likely to bring a laundry list of demands to talks
ISLAMABAD — When Pakistani officials sit down with their American counterparts for a round of high-level talks in Washington today, they'll be a demanding bunch.
They'll say that their armed forces have paid a heavy price to fight what many here see as America's war, and they'll argue that their country continues to bear the brunt of the war on terror with bomb blasts claiming the lives of Pakistanis nearly every week.
"We have already done too much," Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters here last week. "Pakistan has done its bit, we have delivered; now it's your turn. Start delivering."
The United States government has already taken steps to address Pakistan's grievances. U.S. officials have markedly increased the frequency of their visits to Islamabad in recent months, and America is helping fund the country's recent military offensives. In addition, Congress has passed legislation that provides for $7.5 billion of economic and development assistance to Pakistan over a five-year period.
Despite all these gestures of goodwill, deep mistrust subsists between the two strategic allies. Pakistan remembers that Americans were quick to leave the region once their objectives were attained at the end of the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the widely held view is that the same will happen when American troops depart from Pakistan's neighbor.
U.S. efforts to improve its image have often turned into public-relations disasters, and anti-Americanism seems to be on the rise among the general Pakistani population.
"Ultimately, they want to change the tone of this relationship," said Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "This is a realization on both sides that the relationship has failed to deliver."
Qureshi, who will officially lead Pakistan's delegation, intends to bring an exhaustive list of demands when he meets with his counterpart Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today. He has identified no less than 10 "sectoral engagements" that go much beyond military cooperation and include everything from energy and education to health and agriculture.
Pakistan, a country of 175 million people — half of them illiterate — with an economy crippled by corruption and chronic power outages, has proved particularly fertile ground for fundamentalist ideologies and militant groups.
As a result, U.S. officials have increasingly emphasized economic development as a key component of their relationship with Pakistan, and the $7.5 billion aid package passed by Congress late last year was meant as a substantial move in that direction.
But the Kerry-Lugar bill, as the piece of legislation is known here, is a symbol of the dangers the United States faces when trying to woo the country's population.
Instead of focusing on the bill's potential benefits to Pakistan, local politicians and media preferred to turn their attention to the conditions of good governance the bill carried and labeled them as yet another infringement on Pakistan's sovereignty.
More recently, a U.S. tour of Pakistani legislators also turned into a PR fiasco when the tour members suddenly decided to return to Pakistan after experiencing what they saw as excessively intrusive body screening at Washington's Ronald Reagan Airport.
Perceived American favoritism in favor of India, Pakistan's historical enemy, has also proved to be a major stumbling block in U.S.-Pakistan relations.
"Washington's heavy tilt in favor of India and its helplessness in nudging India to seriously address Kashmir and other issues is another source of friction," wrote Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general, in The News, a local newspaper. "Pakistan also cannot kowtow America's Afghanistan policy either unless it takes into account Pakistan's security and strategic concerns."
Pakistan has always sought to ensure a friendly Afghan regime would allow it to focus the bulk of its military might on its eastern border. The involvement of India in the training of Afghan armed forces is therefore seen as a strategic menace to Pakistan's interests, said Imtiaz Gul, the executive director of the Center for Research and Security Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank.
"We do not want an army operating in our backyard ... that has been trained by our archrival," he said.
Gul said a recalibration of the U.S.-India relationship that would take into account Pakistan's interests would go a long way toward mending fences between America and Pakistan.
He said the upcoming talks between the United States and Pakistan are unlikely to yield guarantees besides agreements related to the energy sector. Nonetheless, he said he views the intensification of the dialogue between the two countries as a major opportunity.
"I think they're developing into a much more positive relationship," Gul said. "Pakistan stands a very good chance to benefit from it."