Robert Gates brings praise and pressure to Pakistan

The Defense secretary urges the government to keep after militants as he tries to reassure Pakistanis about U.S. intentions in the region and seeks to dispel conspiracy theories.

January 22, 2010|By Julian E. Barnes and Mark Magnier

Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Seeking to defuse rampant anti-American sentiment, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates delivered Thursday on a long-standing request of Pakistan's: providing a dozen drone aircraft to the nation's military.

Gates, on the first day of a visit here, urged government officials to build on their offensives against militants as he tried to reassure a skeptical Pakistani public about U.S. aims in the region.

Defense officials said the U.S. would give Pakistan 12 Shadow UAVs, unarmed surveillance drones that can be used to spy on militants. Although smaller than the Predator, the Shadow, with a 14-foot wingspan, has a far greater range and flight time than the drones Pakistan operates.

Gates' trip is designed to try to improve the Pakistani public's view of the United States, which has been battered in recent years by controversies over American drone strikes near the border with Afghanistan and a feeling that Pakistan has been pushed by its superpower ally to fight Islamist militancy but then been unappreciated despite its efforts.

Pakistan and the United States have long had a problematic relationship, but at no time in recent memory has the level of anti-Americanism appeared higher. A survey in August by the Pew Research Center in Washington showed that 64% of Pakistani respondents viewed the U.S. as an enemy, and a poll released in October by the University of Maryland found that 90% of Pakistani respondents thought the U.S. abused its power.

Fueled by quarrels over both U.S. military and economic assistance efforts, the anger is rippling through the Pakistani news media and undercutting diplomatic relations. "America is experiencing its most detested hour," said Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a Dawn newspaper columnist. "It has never been hated across the board so much . . . as it is today."

Gates' visit features the usual meetings with senior political and military leaders. But the Defense secretary is also doing significant public outreach, including television interviews and a newspaper op-ed piece, trying to improve America's battered reputation.

Gates said he was using the visit to emphasize -- both with government officials and the public -- that the U.S. would not abandon the region as it did in the 1980s.

"The main focus of my visit is . . . to provide reassurances that we are in this for the long haul and intend to continue to be a partner of theirs for far into the future," Gates said.

At this point, many Pakistanis subscribe to conspiracy theories about U.S. activities in the country.

Stories about "suspicious" behavior by American diplomats and the military have recently circulated widely, including reports that envoys entered the country illegally to nose around secret areas, and that the U.S. Embassy purchased land in a prime ministerial compound and was kicking out members of the prime minister's staff.

In an apparent upping of the ante, the Baluchistan provincial government recently arrested two U.S. consular employees for allegedly driving in the sensitive Gwadar port area with a fake license plate. "Pakistan is not a colony of the U.S. but a sovereign state," sniffed a recent editorial in the Daily Times.

U.S. Embassy officials have denied any wrongdoing in the Gwadar incident and have recently ramped up their public affairs efforts to confront what they regard as printed falsehoods.

"There's a realization that these reports don't have to be egregious to damage bilateral relations," said Richard Snelsire, the embassy spokesman. "There's a cumulative effect on average readers as they see these stories day after day that sets the tone."

Gates, in an interview with the Pakistani cable channel Express News, tried to take on some of the accusations against the U.S., asserting that Washington had no desire to take Pakistan's nuclear weapons, divide the country or split the Islamic world.

"We are aware of these conspiracy theories as much as anyone," Gates said. "And they are all nonsense."

In a second interview, with Pakistani state television, Gates was repeatedly pressed on the Indian threat to Pakistan. Gates bluntly replied that Islamic militancy, not India, is the more serious threat.

"That is the threat where suicide bombers have struck Pakistani cities, have killed Pakistani military officers. . . . This is the threat that faces Pakistan more immediately," Gates said.

During the visit, his first here since February 2007, Gates is explicitly calling for the government in Islamabad to stop trying to make distinctions among extremist groups, backing some that officials think will support their interests while launching attacks against others.

"Only by pressuring all of these groups on both sides of the border will Afghanistan and Pakistan be able to rid themselves of this scourge for good, to destroy those who promote the use of terror here and abroad," Gates wrote in an op-ed article in the Pakistani newspaper the News.

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