In recent years, no matter how much money the United States gives Pakistan — and in fiscal 2010 it was the No. 2-ranked recipient of military and economic assistance behind Afghanistan — the average Pakistani eyes U.S. motivations with extreme skepticism.
“Any goodwill generated by U.S. aid is offset by widespread anti-American sentiment among the Pakistani people,” says a report released last week by the Congressional Research Service.
And Pakistanis are not the only ones exhibiting leeriness: After Osama bin Laden was discovered hiding in plain sight for years not far from Pakistan’s primary military academy, Americans questioned more harshly whether Pakistan was a reliable ally in the decade-old war on terror.
Yet U.S. assistance to Pakistan has continued. This was the case when a U.S. search team was deployed almost immediately to the Siachen Glacier where 135 Pakistani troops and civilians were buried in an avalanche this month in the remote, militarized border region in Kashmir, which both Pakistan and India claim.
The United States also has responded to other natural disasters in Pakistan, notably the 2005 earthquakes that displaced millions and the catastrophic flooding of 2010. It is historically the largest foreign donor to Pakistan, according to Shuja Nawaz, the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center director.
But there’s one problem: “Money can’t buy you love,” he said. “If you insist that people love you because you are helping them, you end up creating the opposite effect.”
“In the U.S. we need to stop looking at aid as a way of winning the hearts and minds in the short run,” said Nawaz, a Pakistani-born political and strategic analyst. “What the U.S. really needs to do is separate the assistance from its political goals.”
Successive Pakistani governments have used anti-Americanism to forward their own political agendas. It is now widely felt in Pakistan that U.S. policymakers believe the country should do America’s bidding in exchange for aid. Pakistani politicians sometimes invoke the image of their country holding out the beggar bowl, a posture that diminishes its autonomy.
It is large, visible aid projects — such as dams to generate power in a country plagued by daily electrical outages — that have the most positive impact on public perception, development experts say.
But even a huge outlay of humanitarian dollars may not help make America look good, says the new report to Congress: “Some evidence suggests that even Pakistanis who benefited from U.S.-funded aid organizations after the catastrophic mid-2010 floods did not change their views of the United States — an increasingly negative view has persisted even after the provision of more than $700 million in related humanitarian assistance.”
In 2011, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan began requiring that the American flag be added to the USAID logo so that recipients would know the source of assistance, the report notes. But aid workers objected, fearing that such branding could lead to militant attacks.
Anti-American sentiment related to “perceived gross sovereignty violations,” including the raid that killed bin Laden, has forced the U.S. to minimize its “footprint” when providing aid, particularly in the northwestern tribal region, according to the report.
“This has meant that some projects are conducted in ways similar to covert operations under the cover of Pakistani government agencies,” the report says, noting that “public diplomacy gains can be sacrificed when aid beneficiaries are unaware of the origin of the assistance they are receiving.”
Still, as both countries work to normalize their contentious relationship, there is no indication that the United States plans to change its approach to assistance to Pakistan.
“This isn’t about politics or policy. It’s about helping people in need,” said U.S. Embassy spokesman Mark Stroh. “That’s what Americans do, anywhere in the world, wherever we can.”