ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Every time Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tried to win over Pakistanis during her three-day charm offensive last week, they fired back a polite but firm message:
We don't really trust your country.
No matter how hard Clinton tried to reassure audiences in Lahore and Islamabad with talk of providing economic aid where it's needed most, Pakistanis seized on her visit as the perfect moment to lash out at a U.S. government they perceive as arrogant, domineering and insensitive to their plight.
At a televised town hall meeting in Islamabad, the capital, on Friday, a woman in a mostly female audience characterized U.S. drone missile strikes on suspected terrorist targets in northwestern Pakistan as de facto acts of terrorism. A day earlier in Lahore, a college student asked Clinton why every student who visits the U.S. is viewed as a terrorist.
The opinions Clinton heard weren't the strident voices of radical clerics or politicians with anti-U.S. agendas. Some of the most biting criticisms came from well-mannered university students and respected, seasoned journalists, a reflection of the breadth of dissatisfaction Pakistanis have with U.S. policy toward their country.
In those voices what rang clear was a sense that Pakistan was paying a heavy price for America's "war on terror."
"You had one 9/11, and we are having daily 9/11s in Pakistan," Asma Shirazi, a journalist with Geo TV, told Clinton during the Islamabad town hall meeting.
Clinton's visit came at a time when Pakistanis' suspicions about U.S. intentions in their country are at an all-time high.
A five-year, $7.5-billion aid package to Pakistan recently signed into law by President Obama has stoked much of the animosity. Measures in the legislation aimed at ensuring the money isn't misspent have been perceived by Pakistanis as levers that Washington can use to exert control over their country.
Pakistanis also continue to be incensed by U.S. reliance on drone missile strikes to take out top Al Qaeda and Taliban commanders in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.
The CIA-operated drone strikes have killed at least 13 senior Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in the tribal areas in the last 18 months. But Pakistani government and military leaders say the strikes have also killed hundreds of civilians and amount to violations of Pakistan's sovereignty.
At the Islamabad town hall meeting, a student from a university in Peshawar, a city shaken by a car bomb blast Wednesday that killed 118 people, summed up the anger over the drone attacks.
"What is actually terrorism in U.S. eyes?" the woman asked. "Is it the killing of innocent people in, let's say, drone attacks? Or is it the killing of innocent people in different parts of Pakistan, like the bomb blast in Peshawar two days ago? Which one is terrorism, do you think?"
Pressed by the forum's moderator whether she thought U.S. drone missile strikes were tantamount to terrorism, Clinton answered, "No, I do not."
On the one occasion when Clinton struck her own assertive tone, the message appeared to get through. Her suggestion to Pakistani journalists in Lahore that elements within the Pakistani government were probably aware of the whereabouts of Al Qaeda leaders but were not acting on the information struck a chord on the opinion pages of major Pakistani newspapers.
"If we are honest, we cannot deny that much of what she said was true," remarked the English-language daily the News in an editorial that appeared Saturday.
Clinton repeatedly acknowledged the mutual lack of trust that has held back the relationship, and she emphasized the Obama administration's commitment to addressing crucial issues for Pakistanis that reach beyond terrorism, such as shoring up Pakistan's beleaguered electricity grid and improving schools and healthcare.
Pakistanis, however, clearly remained unconvinced that Washington was as interested in improving the quality of life in Pakistan as it was in tracking down terrorists. And on several occasions during her trip, Clinton was confronted by Pakistanis who blamed the previous U.S. administration's policies in Afghanistan for the militancy now wreaking havoc across Pakistan.
"Look, Madam Secretary, we are fighting a war that is imposed on us," journalist Shirazi told Clinton. "It's not our war. That was your war, and we are fighting that war."
Assessments of Clinton's trip in Saturday's Pakistani newspapers were gloomy.
"One cannot help feeling that [Clinton's trip] was an abortive exercise," remarked an editorial in the Nation, another English-language newspaper, "and she went away fully conscious of that failure."