Marketing the US in Pakistan

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Marketing the US in Pakistan

President Obama’s new Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy is status-quo plus — counterterrorism sprinkled with elements of nation building in Afghanistan. However, long-term U.S. interests in the region depend on a stable Pakistan deterred from nuclear proliferation and fomenting regional insurgencies. The real war in Pakistan, however, is not about military actions but about perceptions.

The United States has signed billions of dollars in aid over to Pakistan but sitting in Islamabad two weeks ago I could hardly find a happy Pakistani. The overriding narrative usually goes as follows: the U.S. sporadically uses Pakistan’s military, colludes with local leaders, and leaves millions of Pakistanis to clean up the mess. Failing to explain or market its soft power — aid for schools and hospitals — Washington relies on Islamabad to highlight its goodwill and mistakes. While this ostensibly strengthens local governance and protects foreign aid workers, it has placed Pakistanis in a state of combustible ignorance. After eight years today most Pakistanis are equally anti-Taliban and anti-U.S. That spells failure for U.S. public diplomacy.

There are several concrete actions both U.S. and Pakistani officials could take to improve the situation.

First, make U.S.-Pakistan partnership clear to Pakistanis by launching a nation-wide media campaign that answers three basic questions in plain language: why should Pakistanis befriend Americans? Why are Americans helping Pakistanis? What will happen if they cut off support? A web portal should be formed (see, for example, my pilot project at www.usaidforme.com), with the help of independent international and national watchdogs that could track and break down U.S. development aid to ordinary Pakistanis. That most of them are rejecting the $7.5 billion Kerry-Lugar aid bill should be a wakeup call that selling — and not just giving — such aid is essential for any hope of creating American goodwill.

Islamabad has already engaged in a successful marketing campaign against the Taliban, which it should replicate in order to sell the U.S.’s goodwill to Pakistanis. The Taliban’s brutality and their true intentions to create a parallel state were highlighted in private electronic media when Taliban beheaded four Pakistani Special Forces soldiers and lashed a young girl for alleged adultery. Similarly, Pakistanis must be persuaded that Americans are also against the Taliban — not supporting them as some conspiracy theorists allege — and want to build their country, but will not tolerate a nuclear-armed failed state.

Keeping ordinary Pakistanis aloof is dangerous. Despite tattered democracy today fewer than half of Pakistanis can read, and many are hooked to firebrand TV anchors blending anti-Americanism with religious nationalism. The majority of Pakistanis I talked to measured relations with the United States in drone attacks and suicide bombings and never in roads, schools, or hospitals built. They have a point: I have yet to see a ‘made in America’ or ‘gift from Americans’ sign on a school or shelter. Promoting transparency in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is only way to break this vicious cycle of ignorance.

Secondly, the recent State Department $30 million public diplomacy campaign will fail if Islamabad does not end its pervasive doublespeak. Pakistani officials I talked to tell me that the mantra in Awan-e-Sadr (the Pakistani White House) is to take full credit for U.S. weapons, satellites, and dollars and still use the United States as a punching bag for drone attacks (even as they secretly tolerate them). This duplicity is must end with a reasonable ‘roadmap to transparency’ that explains and sells the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. For example, United States should initiate public tours of its embassies and consulates. Pakistanis constantly hear rumors of expanding U.S. embassies that house thousands of Marines ready to occupy their country. The surest way to lay them to rest is to show journalists, students, teachers, diplomats, and development experts at work.

Thirdly, Washington and Islamabad should market U.S.-supported socio-economic and investment programs such as private electricity producers, Fulbright scholarships, and building roads for the tribal areas abutting Afghanistan. These are critical, but rarely highlighted, victories. Marketing reconstruction projects in war torn areas, and synchronizing stabilization efforts between security, development, political, and media experts from both countries, is essential. Supporting the Pakistani Army’s Engineer corps teams — the nearest thing to provincial reconstruction teams like those in Iraq and Afghanistan — in the Swat Valley and surrounding areas, recently allegedly cleared of Taliban, are great places to start working and publicizing.

Lastly, most ordinary Pakistanis, besieged by rising unemployment, energy shortages and food prices, are suspicious of American security firms creating havoc in their country. While necessary, these firms and their personnel must be registered in a public manner and made accountable to local laws.

These are not overnight cure-alls, but rather elements of a roadmap with specific metrics such as frequent polling and benchmarks that will help the United States win the war of perception in Pakistan. Pakistanis are acutely aware of the U.S. calling their country the hub of global terrorism and making contingency plans to secure its nuclear arms, but no one knows about U.S.-sponsored schools or job programs. President Obama must pay heed by implementing a holistic Pakistan policy that jointly measures actions and manages perceptions.

Haider Mullick, who recently returned from a research trip to India and Pakistan, is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), and the author of the forthcoming book-length monograph Pakistan’s Security Paradox: Countering and Fomenting Insurgencies.

This article was also published on December 7, 2009 at foreignpolicy.com

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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