Pakistani officials concerned about Obama's decision to bypass nation on trip

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 12:51 PM

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - President Obama's decision to spend three days in India beginning Saturday, while bypassing Pakistan, has sparked anxiety among government officials here who warn that Obama risks upsetting the delicate balance of power between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

Among the Pakistanis' chief concerns are the Obama administration's apparent unwillingness to get involved in the long-standing dispute over Kashmir; the blossoming U.S.-India civil nuclear partnership; and the symbolism of Obama starting his visit at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai, site of the 2008 siege that killed 173 people and has been blamed on Pakistani militants.

Although the Obama administration recently proposed a new $2 billion aid package for the Pakistani army and last year signed off on a $7.5 billion civilian aid deal, government officials here said this week that the United States has yet to prove itself a reliable partner.

"Unfortunately, on core issues, the U.S. continues to stick to its traditional anti-Pakistan policies - whether it is our nuclear energy program, the Kashmir dispute, our relations with India or our position vis-Ã -vis Afghanistan," said a senior Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the relationship. "So long as Washington does not revisit these issues, it will continue to be very difficult for Washington to make any headway on winning hearts and minds in Pakistan."

The United States views Pakistan as a critical ally in fighting the extremists who have taken refuge in Pakistan's mountainous tribal areas along the Afghanistan border. But the two governments remain wary of one another, and U.S. officials have often cast doubt on whether Pakistan is doing all that it can to combat radical Islamist insurgents - many of whom have long-standing ties to the Pakistani military and intelligence services.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, stressed this week that Obama's three-day visit to India is not at Pakistan's expense. But that has not stopped Pakistanis from interpreting it that way. In recent years, U.S. presidents have often coupled visits to India with a stop in Pakistan - even if it is brief.

Obama's Asian swing is intended to highlight U.S. ties with India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea - all of which are democratic, relatively stable and economically powerful. Pakistan, by contrast, has only recently emerged from military rule, is wracked by a major domestic insurgency and depends heavily on international assistance.

Though Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi requested several times that Obama also stop in Pakistan on this trip, according to Pakistani government officials, the president declined and instead promised to visit Islamabad next year.

That decision could prove risky for Obama, whose popularity here is lower than it is in any other Muslim country. A Pew Research Center poll released this summer found that just 8 percent of Pakistanis expressed confidence in Obama, down from 13 percent in 2009.

Pakistani officials say they are particularly interested in seeing Obama push India to do more to settle the decades-old dispute over Kashmir, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan. More than 100 Kashmiris, mostly young people, have been killed since June in a series of anti-Indian demonstrations in the region. India has said Pakistan must get serious about cracking down on homegrown militancy before there can be an agreement on Kashmir.

"We expect America to use its influence to nudge India in the direction of initiating a peaceful dialogue on the Kashmir situation," said Tariq Fatemi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States. "And if that is difficult, then at least use your position to point out to India that the interest in human rights is deep and broad-based in America and you cannot have daily violations of human rights."

Pakistani government officials said that, at the least, they expect Obama to avoid the confrontational stance taken by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who said during a July speech in India that Pakistan is promoting the "export of terror."

Yet even if Obama refrains from challenging Pakistan directly, officials here said, they fear the president will seek to enhance the civil nuclear partnership with India. That, they said, could disturb the military balance on the subcontinent.

"If there is an effort to build India up as a regional influence, a country that is assigned the responsibility for security in the region, that is unacceptable for Pakistan," said Maleeha Lodhi, another former ambassador to Washington. "Clearly, for deterrence to work, we need the minimum threshold of conventional balance."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company