By Karen DeYoung and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 25, 2009
A new wave of anti-American sentiment in Pakistan has slowed the arrival of hundreds of U.S. civilian and military officials charged with implementing assistance programs, undermined cooperation in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and put American lives at risk, according to officials from both countries.
In recent weeks, Pakistan has rejected as "incomplete" at least 180 U.S. government visa requests. Its own ambassador in Washington has criticized what he called a "blacklist" used by the Pakistani intelligence service to deny visas or to conduct "rigorous, intrusive and obviously crude surveillance" of journalists and nongovernmental aid organizations it dislikes, including the Congress-funded International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute.
"It would be helpful if the grounds for action against them are shared with the Embassy," Ambassador Husain Haqqani wrote in late July to Pakistan's Foreign Ministry and the head of its Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Tension has been fueled by widespread media reports in Pakistan of increased U.S. military and intelligence activity -- including the supposed arrival of 1,000 Marines and the establishment of "spy" centers in houses rented by the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Islamabad. U.S. Ambassador Anne W. Patterson has publicly labeled the reports false, and she told local media executives in a recent letter that publishing addresses and photographs of the houses "endanger[s] the lives of Americans in Pakistan."
At the highest levels, bilateral cooperation is said to be running smoothly. President Obama and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari met Thursday in New York with a gathering of Pakistan's international "friends." With Obama's enthusiastic support, the Senate on Thursday approved a $7.5 billion, five-year package that will triple nonmilitary aid to Pakistan. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, meets regularly with his Pakistani counterpart, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani.
But just below the top, officials in Islamabad and Washington say, the relationship is fraught with mutual suspicion and is under pressure so extreme that it threatens cooperation against the insurgents.
"We recognize that Pakistani public opinion on the United States is still surprisingly low, given the tremendous effort by the United States to lead an international coalition in support of Pakistan," Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said after Thursday's meetings. "We are a long way from this meeting to realities on the ground."
As Obama grapples with U.S. military proposals to greatly increase the number of American troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, other options on the table include a stepped-up counterterrorism campaign against al-Qaeda strongholds in Pakistan that would require more -- rather than less -- Pakistani support.
Recent Pew Research Center surveys in Pakistan found considerable support for the "idea" of working with the United States to combat terrorism. But only 16 percent of Pakistanis polled expressed a favorable view overall of the United States, and only 13 percent expressed confidence in Obama.
Pakistanis, who are extremely sensitive about national sovereignty, oppose allowing foreign troops on their soil and have protested U.S. missile attacks launched from unmanned aircraft against suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda targets inside Pakistan.
Much of the recent upheaval has focused on U.S. plans to expand the U.S. Embassy complex in Islamabad, a heavily guarded, 38-acre compound with nearly 1,500 employees, two-thirds of them Pakistani nationals. About 400 employees are to be added, half of them Americans. Reports of the expansion have led to rumors that at least 1,000 Marines also would be arriving, along with new contingents of U.S. spies.
In addition to repeatedly denying ulterior motives, the embassy has held news briefings and invited Pakistani reporters to tour its grounds. Patterson appeared on local television Saturday to reiterate that Washington has no takeover desires and that there are only eight Marines in the country, guarding the main embassy building.
Patterson also denied local media reports that the embassy has hired Blackwater, the security agency now known as Xe Services that was discredited in Iraq, to spy on and seek to kill insurgent leaders. Those reports apparently originated with U.S. media accounts this summer that the CIA had hired Blackwater to assist in a worldwide assassination program against al-Qaeda that was never activated and no longer exists.
One of the most vocal critics is security analyst and newspaper columnist Shireen Mazari, praised by supporters as a champion of Pakistan's independence. Patterson's Aug. 27 letter to Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, head of the media group that owns the News newspaper and Geo Television, complained that Mazari's column and talk shows had made "wildly incorrect" charges that could endanger Americans' safety. In particular, Patterson objected to Mazari's "baseless and inaccurate allegation" that Washington-based Creative Associates International, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development with offices in Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East, was a "CIA front-company."
In a telephone interview Sunday, Mazari said: "I definitely have concerns about the Americans' intentions here, especially that they would like to get access to our nuclear assets. The U.S. mind-set is suspicious of strong Muslim states, and there is a certain imperial arrogance in their behavior that Pakistanis like me don't like."
Many Pakistanis see the United States as the latest in a long line of usurpers. "It's like history repeating itself, from the time the East India Company came out here," Mazhar Salim, 52, a phone-booth operator in Islamabad, said last weekend. "We are a Muslim country, and the non-Muslim world, the Americans and the Jews and the Indians, are all threatened by our civilization."
U.S. and Pakistani officials, who agreed to discuss the relationship on the condition of anonymity, said that much of the anti-Americanism reflected jousting among Pakistani politicians and retired military leaders, who often use the media to discredit one another.
Haqqani, the Pakistani ambassador, is a frequent target, accused of being too pro-American or, more recently, even pro-Indian. His letter asking for an explanation of visa denials was leaked to the Indian media, arousing suspicion that a foe of the government had sought to doubly discredit him.
But even those Pakistani officials who allege that the intelligence service has a blacklist say that the delay in issuing official visas is as much the United States' fault as it is Pakistan's.
Many more visa applications have been approved than rejected, one official said, and those sent back are "usually the ones without a clear description on the forms about what they're going to do" in Pakistan. "Sometimes the forms just say 'work for the U.S. government.' All we've done is returned those forms and said, 'Hey, what are you going to do?' "
Constable reported from Islamabad. Staff writer Glenn Kessler in New York contributed to this report.