Anti-Americanism in Pakistan

May 11, 2008

U.S. ambassador Anne W. Patterson, in a speech reported by the Pakistan press, said last week that the depth of anti-Americanism in Pakistan, especially among the middle-class, had surprised her. Pakistan’s long-term interests were aligned with those of the United States, and those opposing U.S. engagement in the country had a limited understanding of  how the partnership based on economic assistance had changed the lives of Pakistanis, she told a meeting in Karachi. For added measure, she said that the “ïncreasingly prosperous middle class” would be the first to suffer if  hardliners gained ground.

KFC outlet in Lahore

She needn’t have looked further than to events last  week to see why America sits rather uneasily on the Pakistani mind, a heavy hand of friendship that Pakistanis are increasingly chafing against.

The New York Times reported that the Pentagon had cancelled the appointment of Maj. Gen. Jay W. Hood as the senior American officer based in Pakistan following weeks of criticism in the Pakistani news media over one of his previous jobs : commander of the U.S.  prison at Guantanamo Bay.

“During General Hood’s command from 2004 to 2006, military authorities force-fed with tubes detainees who were engaging in hunger strikes at the Guantánamo prison, a step they justified as necessary to prevent the prisoners from committing suicide to protest their indefinite confinement,” the newspaper said. “Also during General Hood’s tenure, reports that an American guard may have desecrated a Koran stirred wide protests in the Islamic world.”

The surprise was more that he was named to Pakistan in the first place, where resentment about Guantanamo runs deep. It was seen as all the more insensitive  given that a new government had taken over in Islamabad promising  a different approach to tackling Islamist militancy. For while the Pentagon might have been trying to send a crisis-tested 33-year army veteran to Islamabad at a pivotal time in the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda, it was his Guantanamo command that stuck in the Pakistan mind.

Guantanamo Bay

“Guantánamo Bay itself has become a symbol of injustice, torture and abuse of Islam, and sending a commanding officer from there to Islamabad begs the question: What is the message coming out of the Pentagon for Pakistanis by this insensitive act?” Shireen M. Mazari, director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies, wrote in The News back in March when the appointment was announced.

There was even more coming on Capitol Hill where, according to Pakistani news reports, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee told the Foreign Affairs Committee of Congress that while the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People Party was doing a good job, coalition partner Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), led by Nawaz Sharif, “needed to be watched.”

Her comments, widely reported in the Pakistan press, prompted admonishment at this kind of micromanagement of the affairs of a sovereign nation and warnings that it was a recipe for disaster.

Indeed the News  argued that the more the United States or members of its political establishment criticised Sharif the greater would be his following in a country rife with anti-American sentiment. Conversely Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari might cringe at praise from Washington because it would not do him any good at home.  

The best Washington could do, the News said, would be to distance itself from governance of the country. It might even arrest the anti-Americanism that  many Americans find hard to accept.  

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