Anti-US sentiment flourishes in Pakistan

While it is tempting to believe Pakistanis reject anything related to the US, the truth is much more complicated.

There’s an image many in the world have of Pakistan. It’s of a demonstration, with a bearded young man shouting death to America and clutching a burning flag.

While that may be true in some cases, often times that young man dreams of a US education, of being able to help himself and his family out of poverty as a result.

Pakistanis have issues with America – of this there is no doubt.

But you can’t say Pakistanis hate America, even though placards and the chants would suggest otherwise.

The truth, and the language on the lips and the placards, is one of frustration, not hatred.

What Pakistanis are frustrated about, perhaps, is their government’s apparent powerlessness in the face of US might, and perceived US indifference.

US demands

In the coming days leading up to the US presidential election, and in the weeks following it, you will hear much about what Barack Obama or Mitt Romney would want Pakistan’s government to do.

They can be summed up as follows: Crack down on militancy deny the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban safe havens in the northwest of the country stamp out corruption nurture tolerance and generally turn Pakistan into the very model of Jeffersonian democracy.

What Pakistan wants from the US are of a more practical nature.

Pakistan needs the US to help with its domestic issues. It has a chronic energy shortage. It needs massive upgrades in infrastructure.

On that level, Pakistan’s government tries its hardest to paint a rosy picture of co-operation. And so things roll along. Both sides have clear indication of what the relationship is and they try and make the most of it.

Just then, a pilotless aircraft flying over the northwest drops its deadly payload, killing what the US will claim is a dangerous terrorist. Or someone, taking full advantage of free speech, launches an attack on the Prophet Muhammad.

And, just like that, the chant of “Death to America” begins to ring out loud across the country.

Sensing a popular theme, Pakistani politicians line up to appear on influential television talk shows, further fanning that sentiment.

Once again, you get a seeming disconnect between the Pakistani government, which is trying to manage the relationship with the US, and its people.

In that disconnect, anti-American sentiment flourishes.

Until, of course, a US election rolls around. And then there is a period of optimism that things will change. That was, at least, the case four years ago.

Four years ago, I was here in Islamabad when Barack Obama was elected.

Amongst many throughout Pakistan’s diverse population there was a sense of optimism. Obama had visited Pakistan, he had Pakistani friends. Many felt that, somehow, he understood the country better and could reshape the fraught relationship.


Four years on, Pakistan has been disappointed. Across the political capital, Islamabad, you can see the outward signs of that disappointment.

Security checkpoints are everywhere. Concrete barriers stand testament to the sense of nervousness. Snipers look down on passengers at the airport. Foreigners, meanwhile, are much more security-minded.

Is this President Obama’s fault? Yes and no.

He has made decisions in his nation’s best interest. The raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, for example, was a gross violation of national sovereignty whichever way you look at it, but it was made on that simple premise of American self-interest.

What “good” the US does for Pakistan is drowned out by the headline grabbing “bad” it also does.

Prominent Pakistani politician Imran Khan has developed a career on concentrating his message to one about the effects drone strikes have. And it has worked wonders for him in terms of popularity.

He, like many others, uses the issue because he sees it as a vote-winning strategy and wants the US to pay attention to what he thinks Pakistanis want.

What it has done is also strengthen anti-US sentiments.

Suddenly, drone strikes are a defining factor in the relationship and nothing else gets a look in. The thinking goes: drones kill civilians, Pakistanis are powerless to stop this, and therefore all anger is directed at America. 

When you stall on an issue, it’s difficult to get past it.

None of this is to suggest that Pakistanis are angry about US drone attacks without good reason.

Deep ties

But as I said earlier, the truth is more complicated. There is no getting around how Pakistan has deep ties with the US, on both a governmental and personal level.

On a people-to-people level many thousands of hard-working Pakistani Americans send money back to the motherland to support families here.

Pakistanis understand that a relationship with the US is in its best interest.

For far too long, however, Pakistanis have felt like they have no power to influence the nature of that relationship that the government is too cowardly to stand up to the US. That the US and Pakistan share information and tactics, that without tacit approval from the country’s military, drone strikes simply could not happen.

So what you get is a sort of populist status quo: anti-US sentiment, fanned by those with an agenda.

This US election is not going to change that status quo.

For the US, and this may seem a harsh assessment, Pakistan is just one of a long list of issues that have to be dealt with. And, oftentimes, it’s easier just to stay the course.

Regardless of who wins the US election on November 6, the cost of doing business with the Pakistani government, it would seem, is that Pakistanis will take to the streets on occasion and burn your flag.

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