In Pakistan, a rethinking of the U.S. alliance


The United States and Pakistan have been allies for decades, but it has rarely been easy to be pro-American here. In the photo, Pakistani protesters hold up a burning US flag in Lahore on May 27, 2011. (ARIF ALI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
June 24, 2011

Ali Khan Afridi is a wanted man.

Militants come to his house in this frontier city and menace his family. Men claiming to be from Pakistan’s intelligence services call at 2 a.m. and tell him to watch his back.

Afridi accepts all this as the price of his radical views: In a country where the vast majority of people believe the United States is an enemy, Afridi is unabashedly pro-American.

“I believe that America is the only power that can defeat these monsters, these terrorists,” said Afridi, a clean-shaven 36-year-old who leads a consortium of non-governmental groups. “And that means my life is in permanent danger.”

The United States and Pakistan have been allies for decades, but it has rarely been easy to be pro-American here. Now, after the killing early last month of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs, speaking out on behalf of the United States requires a degree of boldness that verges on a death wish.

While bin Laden was held in low regard by most Pakistanis and there have been few public displays of anger at his death, the impact on attitudes toward the United States has been profound. Critics of Pakistani ties with Washington are ascendant on the streets, in the media and, crucially, at Pakistan’s military headquarters in Rawalpindi. Backers of the relationship, the few who remain, have been cowed into silence or are reconsidering their stands.

“The U.S. doesn’t realize it, but the damage done is huge. This is a deep hurt that is not going to go away,” said Riaz Khokar, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States who advocates a dramatic downgrading of the relationship. “We have placed all our eggs in the U.S. basket. And the eggs turned out to be rotten.”

What Khokar and others object to is not that the United States killed bin Laden. It’s the fact that after a decade of partnership in battling extremists, the Obama administration decided to carry out the raid in the northern city of Abbottabad without informing Pakistan.

U.S. officials have said they were concerned about tipping off bin Laden and did not want to risk confiding in Pakistani security services that have not always proved trustworthy. Since bin Laden was killed in early May, U.S. policymakers have openly wondered whether elements of the Pakistani military or intelligence services knew about bin Laden’s presence.

Such statements have deepened the mistrust here and the sense of betrayal.

“In this part of the world, public humiliation is a very serious matter. And the U.S. has humiliated the armed forces of Pakistan,” said Khokar, who has met recently with Pakistan’s powerful top general, Ashfaq Kayani.

Perhaps no other Pakistani backer of the U.S. alliance has come under more scrutiny, or pressure, than Kayani. The army chief had been tightly aligned with the United States and had forged a particularly strong relationship with Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But after bin Laden’s death, Kayani “almost went into a state of shock. He could never imagine in his wildest dreams that after all the coordination with Mike, this would be the outcome,” according to retired Maj. Gen. Mahmud Ali Durrani, a former ambassador to the United States who is considered close to Kayani.

In his public statements since the bin Laden raid, Kayani has been frequently critical of the United States. He is facing pressure from his corps commanders to go beyond rhetoric and take a far tougher policy line, including forcing an end to the U.S. campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt.

Despite growing anti-Americanism within the public in recent years, the army’s top leadership had long been a bastion of belief that the U.S. alliance was too important to risk losing. But that has changed.

“The army is very, very sensitive to public opinion,” Durrani said. “Right now there’s a rethinking because there’s been a failure in the old strategy of so-called cooperation with the U.S. Anyone in their position would rethink.”

‘Abusing America’

On Pakistani television screens, the rethinking plays out nightly. The airwaves are filled with prime-time anchors who attack the United States and go after even the Pakistani generals who support the alliance. “If you are a journalist and you want high ratings, start verbally abusing America,” said Saleem Safi, host of a popular show on the privately run Geo network. “If you abuse the Taliban, al-Qaeda or the Pakistani establishment, you face threats to your life — people say you are a non-Muslim. If you are talking against America, you become a hero.”

Advocates of downgrading the U.S. relationship point to the estimated 35,000 Pakistanis who have been killed in extremist violence since Pakistan partnered with the United States after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The billions of dollars in aid supplied by Washington, they say, hardly compensate for the economic devastation wrought by a war with militants that has never been accepted as Pakistan’s own.

In Peshawar, the teeming capital of Pakistan’s northwest that has suffered a disproportionate share of attacks, a massive billboard memorializes a police official assassinated by the Taliban last year. Streets are named after other soldiers and officers who have died. But by and large, “people have not owned this war. They say it is the war of the U.S. that has been imposed on us,” said Shaheed Soherwordi, an international relations professor at Peshawar University.

Soherwordi spoke from a desk in the Lincoln Corner, a section of the university library co-sponsored by the U.S. government that gives Pakistanis a place to read American books and magazines — everything from thick biographies of presidents to Entertainment Weekly.

It is one of the few places in the city that is openly associated with the United States. Another, the U.S. consulate, is considered such a prime target for attack that Soherwordi recently pulled his daughter from a school that he felt was situated too close to the fortress-like compound.

“Every thing and every person associated with the U.S. is a target,” Soherwordi said.

That includes Afridi, whose work takes him into the neighboring tribal areas. He insists he does not have a death wish but is well aware of the risks of speaking out so strongly in favor of the United States. In recent days, a known militant visited the Afridi home and told Afridi to stay quiet.

Afridi said he has no intention of doing so. The real threat to his native tribal lands is not the United States, he said, but the Arab, Chechen and Uzbek extremists who have moved in and taken over. He believes others agree with him but are too afraid to say so.

“There are millions like me,” Afridi said. “But they are terrified. And they are silent.”

Griff Witte is The Post’s London bureau chief. He previously served as the paper’s deputy foreign editor and as the bureau chief in Kabul, Islamabad and Jerusalem.
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