Americans and Pakistan, post-Bin Laden

Published: May 17, 2011
The writer is the programme associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC

The writer is the programme associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC

Once again, Washington is in a tizzy about Pakistan.

US officials have long had nightmares about loose nukes and radical Islamist coups. For nearly a decade, they have shouted themselves hoarse about militant sanctuaries in the tribal areas. Several months ago they were infuriated by the arrest of a CIA contractor. And now, they are smarting over l’affaire Abbottabad.

Still, they are resolute. Even with many around town calling for aid cut-offs, the Obama administration is feverishly attempting to salvage a relationship that is haemorrhaging mistrust (witness its endorsement of John Kerry’s latest fence-mending trip to Pakistan). We must get it right in Pakistan, Washington declares, because this, is the one nation where we cannot afford to fail. Abandonment is not an option.

Alas, across much of America, such words fall on deaf ears. Outside the Beltway, Pakistan inspires little more than ignorance or hostility, if not outright indifference. And with the 2012 congressional and presidential elections looming, the views of the American masses will be instrumental in helping determine the fate of one of the world’s most tortured relationships.

Most Americans do not follow foreign affairs — a consequence of geography and the fact that our nation has largely been spared from acts of international terrorism or war on its soil, 9/11 and Pearl Harbour notwithstanding. While media attention after Bin Laden’s death is fixated on reactions of New Yorkers and Washingtonians, it is the Muslim World that has been most traumatised by al Qaeda violence in the post-9/11 era.

So, while Washington may brand Pakistan as the world’s most dangerous nation, relatively few Americans actually know much about it.

To the extent that Americans are aware of Pakistan, it is through a highly reductive lens of insecurity and terrorism —which invites hostility. Such sentiment is not limited to the hoi polloi; recall Congressman Howard Berman — of Kerry-Lugar-Berman fame — speaking of sending billions of aid dollars down a “rat hole”. Earlier this year, a Gallup survey found that only 18 per cent of Americans have positive views of Pakistan — a new low. In fact, only once, over the last 11 years, has the figure surpassed 30 per cent. No wonder so many Americans believe Pakistan sheltered Osama bin Laden; attributing his presence there to mere state incompetence would be too kind.

This should not suggest that Americans obsess around the clock about scary Pakistan. Unlike their countrymen in Washington, Americans are relatively uninterested in national security matters. In polling conducted last month, only one per cent of Americans cited terror or national security as their most important concern (and after Bin Laden’s death, many Americans have claimed to feel safer and more confident about combating global terror). The economy, by far, ranked as the most important concern — hardly a revelation at a time of near-double-digit unemployment and a $14 trillion-and-fast-rising national debt. Hence the reason why, across much of the nation, talk about Bin Laden’s capture petered out after a few days. Americans are consumed by more immediate concerns closer to home, from food inflation to job prospects.

This all holds unsettling implications for US-Pakistan relations. Islamabad has had enough trouble garnering support in some of its chief objectives, such as securing greater market access for textile exports and completing a civil nuclear deal. Such goals — along with continued aid — can only be consummated with the blessing of Capitol Hill, and Congress is held directly accountable by its constituents every two years — including next year. Given the impending elections, the gloomy US economic climate and America’s discontent and disinterest about Pakistan, one can expect Congress to grow more sympathetic to the belief, of many Americans, that helping Pakistan is simply not worth the time or money.

International politics may dictate that Washington pull out all the stops to resuscitate its floundering relationship with Islamabad. However, in the months ahead, domestic anti-Pakistan sentiment will enjoy increasing sway over American policymakers. As one of them once famously observed, all politics is local.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 17th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (10)

  • faraz
    May 17, 2011 - 1:12AM

    80 percent of US aid goes to the military and has negligible impact on the economy or the people. US must stop the military aid to the army in the long run. These military gadgets bloat the ego of our generals and they come up with strange defense and strategic plans. US patronage of our army is the root cause of our problems. Without CEATO SENTO there would have been no war of 1965. US sponsored Afghan jihad radicalized the population and the process has intensified after 911. People are fooled into believing that the foreign policy is formulated by the civilians whereas the army is the main beneficiary of US-Pak relations. Recommend

  • meekal ahmed
    May 17, 2011 - 1:16AM

    I think you are right in terms of the thrust of your arguments but I cannot see a complete rupture. Recommend

  • FactCheck
    May 17, 2011 - 1:46AM


    You are so wrong on so many fronts in this article it is pathetic. In 7×24 news era with Fox and CNN, every kid knows about Pakistan. Your statement of Americans are not interested in National Security is junk, that is one thing that unites them across party lines. I do not know where did the poll or which poll it is, you need to get out and talk to the man on the street before spreading rubbish.Recommend

  • May 17, 2011 - 3:06AM

    Pakistanis, due to our own lack of democratic practice fail to understand the democratic processes of other countrys. “Experts” in Pakistan get excited by General Kayani passing a hand written letter to President Obama, as if, like in Pakistan, everything is about the whims of one individual. Pakistan has had the luxury of dealing with America as a security consideration. US voters have tolerated Pakistan as matter of national security. The Pakistani state seems to believe that its nuclear weapons and large military infrastructure will impress the world as it impresses the Pakistani population. The world is not impressed! Even so, America may be the devil, and Pakistan may get its kick by standing up to the worlds lone superpower, but never fear the Pakistani elite, generals, politicians and the sort are inlove with the American dream themselves. They send their kids over gladly. They just cant stand extending the same opportunities to the majority of Pakistanis. Recommend

  • May 17, 2011 - 7:29AM

    Americans and Pakistanis have two things in common—both have populations largely unaware of international relations and both have very shrill media which works hard to convince their respective populations that they are at the centre of the universe.Recommend

  • Pakistani in US
    May 17, 2011 - 8:53AM

    Stop giving aid to our generals. This is the root of all evils and should stop. Recommend

  • Asad Baig
    May 17, 2011 - 10:33AM

    Very Well Written.Good to read an unbiased article.Recommend

  • harkol
    May 17, 2011 - 10:39AM

    The only thing that stops US from breaking with Pakistan is the nukes. What Pakistan establishment does is a sophisticated blackmail. Host all the third rate villains of the world, but keep threatening the world of a nuclear backlash if any action is taken.

    World will play along hoping to moderate and reform Pak establishment for a while, but sometime it’ll realize it is better to break the back of Pakistan by treating it like USSR.

    USSR broke down irrespective of being a far bigger, greater and technically superior power than Pakistan. It is in Pakistan’s interest to ensure it doesn’t breakup, for that it needs to ensure the coercive powers rest alone with the state within its territory. All the hide-n-seek games should end.

    Failing that Pakistan will breakup in to 3-4 pieces with atleast two pieces becoming hot bed for terrorists.Recommend

  • Rao Amjad Ali
    May 17, 2011 - 3:49PM

    Just as the insurance giant AIG was too big to fail, Pakistan is too strategic too fail!

    In my judgment Americans have come a long way in their understanding of world affairs since the end of the cold war and their interest seemed to have piqued in the Middle East and South Asia starting with the Iranian hostage crisis, followed by regime changes in Iraq and Afghanistan and subsequently the emergence of “poster” Pakistan popularized on the world stage for its nukes, earthquake, floods, suicide attacks, extremists and the controversial ISI.

    While I do not have scientific data to show just how far the US public has come in being aware of Pakistan’s history, land and people, I do recall that years ago one of my more concerned students at a fairly elite university in the States had come up to me after a lecture to announce “There has been violence in your country”. On closer inspection I found out that there had been Israeli air sorties on Palestinian territory. The student later apologized for assuming the two countries were the same.

    On my recent visit to the US, I stopped to get directions at a gas station in a small community in rural Ohio. “You must be from India?” the attendant inquired. No, but from the same neighborhood, “Oh, you must be from Paxtan?” Yes, I am, “Islamabad or Lahore?”. From Lahore. Randy was only a part-time CNN watcher.Recommend

  • Michael Kugelman
    May 17, 2011 - 4:43PM

    FactCheck–thanks for your comments. The polling data come from Gallup, and can be accessed on the Gallup webpage.

    To be sure, one must resort to a degree of generalization in a short piece, though the gist of my point is as follows: Americans, to the extent that they know about Pakistan, have rather negative views about it. And with the economic situation as dreadful as it is, people here are simply not as focused on international affairs, and, by extention, Pakistan. Though to be sure, this could change in a hurry if the USA suffers another terrorist attack.Recommend

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