Flood disaster creates opportunity for U.S.-Pakistan relations

Flood disaster creates opportunity for U.S.-Pakistan relations

The devastating flood in Pakistan has create an opportunity for the U.S. government to show its commitment to the country and improve America’s tattered image there, but that will be a tough slog, experts say.

The U.S. government is already heavily involved in the humanitarian response to the flood crisis, shipping tons of food and supplies into the affected areas while helping the Pakistan civilian and military institutions mobilize their response. But in a country that still harbors strong aversions to U.S. influence and remains deeply skeptical of American intentions, progress is likely to be slow.

"These kinds of crises are opportunities for the U.S. to get it right more than before and make a dent in Pakistani attitudes toward the U.S, but there’s an underlying structural issue that isn’t going to be overcome rapidly, if at all," said Daniel Markey, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The last major improvement in attitudes toward the U.S. in Pakistan was during and immediately after U.S. efforts to respond to the 2005 earthquake near Kashmir, Markey said. But that newfound popularity didn’t last because U.S. efforts trailed off and ordinary Pakistanis didn’t see Americans sticking around for the long term, he said.

This time may be different. The Obama administration has been aggressively expanding cooperation with Pakistan’s civilian government through the 13 working groups that emerged from the new strategic dialogue consultations. And the $7.5 billion Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid bill is meant to show Pakistanis that the U.S. is there to stay.

But extremist groups will surely try to use the flood to improve their currently low standing among the public by providing their own assistance efforts, as they did during the earthquake.

"In each of these instances, you can lose ground as well," Markey said.

The large infrastructure, water and energy projects that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled during her visit to Pakistan last month are aimed specifically at getting maximum bang for the buck in terms of changing Pakistani attitudes toward the U.S. — targeting the middle- and upper-class workers and industrialists who stand to benefit most from economic growth.

"Our goal is, and the secretary’s goal of her trip, was to convince Pakistan that U.S. commitment to the region is not short-run, is not limited to our current military engagement," said Vali Nasr, a top advisor to Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

So is it working? Well, according to the latest Pew Research Center survey, Pakistani attitudes toward the U.S. are still overwhelmingly negative. Only 17 percent surveyed viewed the U.S. favorably and 59 percent viewed the U.S. as an enemy. However, the numbers have moved up from last year and 64 percent of Pakistanis surveyed said they hoped U.S.-Pakistan relations would improve, despite their skepticism.

The poll numbers don’t tell the whole story, American officials argue, and those who traveled with Clinton claimed that her reception was notably warmer in all respects than it was during her previous trip last autumn. For example, she was never asked about drones, and questions about her belief that Pakistani government officials were allowing Osama bin Laden to hide there came primarily from Western journalists, Nasr said.

"It was very clear from the secretary’s public engagements this time … that there was a different tenor to the relationship.  From engagements with the media, town-hall meetings, meetings with business leaders — the kind of questions she got, the general attitude of Pakistanis towards her trip and towards her message were very different from November," Nasr said.

A significant portion of the Pakistani news media is avowedly anti-American, complicating U.S. and Pakistani government efforts to get the word out.

"Part of it is not just whether we’re doing the right things, but whether we have voices that are capable of explaining that to the Pakistani public, which is in a very heated, difficult, and messy media environment," said Markey.

Back at home, the Obama administration’s outreach to Pakistan is getting favorable review in some unlikely quarters, such as the Republican caucus in the Senate.

"Things generally are the best they have been with Pakistan in a long time. And this is one area where President Obama doesn’t get enough credit," GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham said on CNN’s State of the Union. "His team, in my view, have brought out the Pakistanis into the fight better than anybody in recent memory. They are cooperating with us more. They are allowing us to use these drone attacks … The aid packages that we have given to the Pakistani army have been well used. General Kayani has been a good partner in taking the fight to the frontier regions."