Obama administration wants to change popular Pakistani perceptions of their country's role in 'America's war', but this may take more than grand gestures [GALLO/GETTY]

A preacher I once knew said something which has resonated with me ever since. "There is no end to the good you can do," he said, "provided you are willing to give someone else the credit."

No doubt, a substantial amount of good will come from the $500mn in new, large-scale US-funded infrastructure projects announced by Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, in Islamabad this week. But the secretary and other senior US officials have made it clear: They want to be sure the US gets the credit.

Ever since 9/11 and Pakistan's abrupt - if partial - policy shift in favour of cooperation with the US against al-Qaeda and associated militants, US officials have been seized of the fact that the US' overwhelming unpopularity among the Pakistani public was making it all the more difficult for Pakistani officials to vigorously prosecute a campaign against militancy.

Try as he might, Pervez Musharraf, the former Pakistani president, though genuinely convinced of the domestic necessity to combat extremism, could not develop popular support for what was seen as "America's war".

Grand gestures

IN depth

More from Robert Grenier:

  Petraeus faces Afghan conundrum
  McChrystal's fatal error
  The US and Karzai's little brother
  'Condemned to civil war'
  Non-proliferation regime 'bankrupt'
  Ominous signs for US-Pakistan ties
  Why Karzai cannot choose his family
  US leadership in non-proliferation
  Follow the chain of command
  Talking to the enemy
  Striking at Afghanistan corruption
  Pakistan needs friendly Afghanistan
  Political umbrage in Washington?
  Making room for the Taliban

The Obama administration has made it clear that it wants to fundamentally change the Pakistani perception of its relationship with the US, both at the leadership and popular levels. 

The administration sees the need to move beyond the "transactional" nature of past US-Pakistan relations, in favour of a "broad partnership" which it hopes will overcome the "trust deficit" and convince Pakistanis that the US will remain committed to them and the region long after the current unpleasantness with the Taliban and al-Qaeda have ended.

In conducting this uphill fight, the US has opted for the grand gesture. Not only is the absolute amount of civilian developmental aid contained in the so-called Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill impressively high - some $7.5bn over five years - but in implementing this programme, the US has decided to place considerable emphasis on mega-infrastructure projects including dams, hydroelectric power plants, irrigation projects, and large hospitals.

These projects make a great deal of sense in their own right. Pakistan is beset with crushing deficits in water and electric power; addressing them is key to economic growth and long-term political stability in a nuclear-weapons state in which extremism exerts a substantial appeal. 

Moreover, moving beyond the uni-dimensional pattern of the Bush administration, which largely limited itself to military aid, counter-terrorism assistance and military reimbursement for Pakistani troop deployments, promises to expand the US relationship to encompass the civilian side of the leadership class, again with long-term benefits.

However, if US leaders believe that investment in high-profile development projects is likely to fundamentally alter popular Pakistani perceptions of the US, they are likely to be disappointed.

Popular perceptions

Its response to a 2005 earthquake temporarily improved perceptions of US [GALLO/GETTY]

That is not to suggest that Pakistani perceptions of the US must always remain deeply negative; nor does it suggest that popular views of the US cannot be improved. That notion was strongly rebutted by the popular reaction to rapid US disaster relief assistance - much of it delivered by the US military - to Pakistani earthquake victims in the Northern Areas and Kashmir in 2005. 

The images of US helicopters carrying desperately-needed humanitarian assistance to devastated areas produced a very marked, though temporary, upswing in popular perceptions of the US. But large-scale, multi-year projects whose impact on the lives of ordinary Pakistanis will be incremental and difficult to trace will simply not have a commensurate impact on popular perceptions. 

In these more ambiguous circumstances, which lack the emotional impact of placing food into the hands of a hungry child, the reflexive reaction of many Pakistanis will be that US largesse toward Pakistan must be meant to serve US interests, and that the benefit to ordinary Pakistanis is incidental to that larger purpose. 

Even the $100mn earmarked to expand bank credit to small and medium-sized businesses is likely to be so heavily intermediated by Pakistani institutions as to blunt the public relations benefit to the US.

This is precisely in line with the current US experience in Afghanistan, where the local political impact of US development assistance seems to be inversely proportional to the size and ambition of the project.

For example, all the money invested by the US in newly-refurbished road systems in Afghanistan has generated very little gratitude on the part of Afghans, either toward the Americans or toward the Afghan government. Conversely, very modest projects selected and conducted with determinative input from people at the village level, and with local engagement in their administration, have had a far greater political effect, especially in terms of the return on dollars invested.

Misaligning cause and effect
 
Finally, it must be said that the US is not aided in its efforts by the fact that its interest in Pakistan is substantially - perhaps fundamentally - transactional. 

While the US has a clear national interest in a more stable and prosperous Pakistan, the impetus for its current aid programmes - transparently so - is provided by the situation in Afghanistan and by the war on terror, of which the Afghanistan counterinsurgency campaign is currently the preeminent part. 

Here too, the US is misaligning cause and effect: Pakistani policy toward Afghanistan will be driven by Pakistani perceptions of its interests across the Durand Line; and the domestic Pakistani campaign against extremists will be driven by Pakistani perceptions of threat, greatly changed by the recent Taliban infestation of Swat and the mass terror attacks on Pakistani civilians, and not by perceptions of the US.

This is not to suggest for a moment that the US investment in Pakistani economic and social development is a mistake: Far from it. But like so much of US policy, its ultimate benefit to US interests will necessarily be indirect, and will take the form of bolstering responsible Pakistani politicians whose stock is dependent on their ability to deliver for the people, and who are better served politically when seen at least to be gaining a dividend for Pakistan when providing support for "America's war".

This reality may not be very satisfying to Americans, who nonetheless would be well advised to heed the words of that long-ago preacher, and do good by giving credit to others.

Robert Grenier was the CIA's chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of the CIA's counter-terrorism centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera