ISLAMABAD - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton minced no words during a maiden diplomatic tour to Pakistan, admonishing its silence on Al-Qaeda but winning plaudits for trying to bridge the trust deficit.
The 62-year-old politician-turned diplomat, who was born the same year that Pakistan was created, was at pains to use a whirlwind of meetings to broaden US engagement and overcome gulfs of misunderstanding.
She wore a headscarf swathing her blonde hair and chest to visit a shrine and mosque and chat with Muslim clerics. She spoke fondly of past visits with her daughter and husband. She pledged millions for energy and education and to tackle poverty.
She acknowledged past mistakes — criticism of George W. Bush went down particularly well — and called for a “new page” in relations with an ally on which the United States depends to fight Al-Qaeda and in Afghanistan.
In a country quick to anger over perceived indignities and admonishments, Clinton’s determination to meet “real” Pakistanis and counter suspicions over a massive 7.5 billion-dollar aid package struck a chord with many.
“She came with a charm offensive... She left with a message of goodwill,” said Ishtiaq Ahmed, head of international relations at Islamabad’s prestigious Quaid-e-Azam University.
“Her visit was to cultivate and reshape public opinion in Pakistan. There was a communication gap. She realised this and took credible initiatives.”
Clinton’s message was that Barack Obama administration stands shoulder to shoulder with Pakistan in its fight against Islamist militancy and wants a long-term relationship, moving beyond the mistakes of the past.
Interestingly the local media — generally critical of the United States and a key target for Clinton’s public diplomacy — indulged in quiet praise. “Unlike her tough-talking and deliberately abrasive predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, Ms Clinton went out of her way to be charming, open and to talk to a wide range of people,” wrote English-language daily The News.
But on one point, Clinton was tough — Al-Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal belt, where Pakistani troops are fighting the Taliban but the government denies Osama bin Laden and his top cohorts are hiding out. “Al-Qaeda has had safe haven in Pakistan since 2002,” Clinton told Pakistani newspaper editors. “I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to,” she added.
Washington has put Pakistan at the heart of the fight against Al-Qaeda and US officials have blamed Pakistan for not doing more to crush the breeding grounds of Islamist militancy in its wild tribal belt. Pakistan says there is no evidence bin Laden is alive and has protested against US missile attacks against militants on its soil.
“She gave a message that it is naive to say they (the government) don’t know about an Al-Qaeda presence in Pakistan,” said local analyst Mutahir Sheikh.
“The goodwill she has developed will remain until the interests converge but it can divert tomorrow,” he told AFP.
After eight years in the Senate and years campaigning with Bill Clinton, Hillary is often considered more of a politician than a natural-born diplomat. “Somebody, somewhere in Pakistan must know where these people are,” Clinton reiterated for a second day.There was no public reaction from the government, which has an uneasy relationship with the powerful military and depends on US assistance.
Hasan Askari, one of Pakistan’s most prominent political analysts, said Clinton did well “to leave a good impact and reduce negative sentiments in public” but he sounded a note of caution. “Differences will continue on the presence of Al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan. This has been the US position. Pakistan does not accept it,” he said.
Clinton denied in an interview with CBS television that she had been accusing Pakistan of harbouring Al-Qaeda. “What I was conveying is really part of the message of my trip,” she said. “I knew when I was coming here that there was a trust deficit... Trust has to go both ways. So I’m not drawing any conclusions but I am asking the questions that are on Americans’ minds as well,” she said.
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