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Pakistanis look on U.S. Embassy plans with suspicion

Washington says it wants to expand its Islamabad facility so it can better distribute the increased aid it plans to give. But in a nation deeply distrustful of the U.S., conspiracy theories abound.

September 25, 2009|Alex Rodriguez

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Ask Pakistanis why the United States needs to expand its embassy here in the capital and you'll hear a host of alarming answers.

It's a cover for the construction of a Guantanamo-like prison.

It's part of a U.S. attempt to colonize Pakistan.

It's the first step in a covert plan to take over Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

What you don't hear is the reason cited by American officials: the need for a bigger embassy operation to better manage the increased financial aid that Washington will be channeling to Pakistan in coming months.

The United States is planning to send Pakistan $1.5 billion in nonmilitary aid annually for the next five years, triple what it sends now. The Senate approved the aid package Thursday as President Obama was meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in New York. The House is expected to follow suit in coming days.

Embassy officials have held briefings for Pakistani reporters to put out the word that the expansion is all about distributing funds more efficiently. And Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says the aid illustrates long-term support for Pakistan.

The message is having trouble getting through.

The embassy expansion plans have spawned conspiracy theories that course through newspapers and blogs, reflecting the deep suspicion Pakistanis harbor about Washington.

An editorial in the Nation, a leading English-language daily, fretted that "there seems to be something fishy" in the embassy plan, theorizing that the United States' actual goal is to entrench itself in Central Asia to lay claim to its vast energy resources.

A petition filed in Pakistan's Supreme Court this month labels the expansion an attempt at colonization. Pakistani lawyer Zafarullah Khan, the petition's author, calls it the means by which the U.S. will "bring us down on our knees."

In an interview last week in a Pakistani newspaper, former intelligence chief Hamid Gul said the expansion masked Washington's real aim: to seize the country's nuclear arsenal.

"What I fear is that they really want to go for Pakistan's nuclear assets," Gul said. "They are inching closer to those nuclear assets day by day."

There has also been growing speculation in the Pakistani news media that the American security firm once known as Blackwater is secretly operating in Pakistan. Blackwater, now known as Xe, made headlines during the Iraq conflict when its employees were accused of unprovoked killings of civilians.

"It is absolutely wrong," Interior Minister Rehman Malik said this month. "Blackwater is not operating in Pakistan. We will not allow anybody to operate from here."

But the anti-American anger that smolders in Pakistan doesn't need much to catch fire.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, nearly two-thirds of Pakistanis view the U.S. as an enemy. Only 9% see it as a partner.

Many Pakistanis think the U.S. has turned their country into a battleground for the "war on terror" while ignoring the nation's economic and social ills.

They also believe that Washington's policy in the region has always placed Pakistan second to its archenemy and next-door neighbor, India.

And they still resent the U.S. for nurturing Pervez Musharraf, whose near-decade of authoritarian rule in Pakistan was bolstered by strong support from President George W. Bush.

"The anti-Americanism that exists in Pakistan is because of flawed U.S. policy toward this country," former Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmad said. "We had eight years of dictatorship, and the U.S. tried to keep him in power."

American assurances of benign intent face stiff resistance.

"The people we are bringing here have skills to provide the assistance that the government of Pakistan is asking for," Jacob Lew, U.S. deputy secretary of State for management and resources, said at a briefing with Western journalists. "It's not soldiers; it's not bringing in a military presence."

In previous years, the bulk of U.S. aid was military-related. The Obama administration, however, wants to devote a larger share to shoring up Pakistan's infrastructure and economy to tackle the social and economic conditions that lay the groundwork for Taliban and Al Qaeda militancy.

The increased aid will target primary and secondary schools, healthcare, job creation and the aging electricity grid. Daily power shutdowns this summer crippled the economy and triggered massive protests.

To handle this, Washington wants to revamp its embassy compound within the heavily guarded diplomatic enclave on the eastern end of Islamabad and acquire 18 additional acres, mostly for staff housing. It plans to add 400 workers to its staff of 250 posted employees and 200 temporary employees.

Pakistani resentment has its roots in how Washington treated Pakistan after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.

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