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A girl runs through a Peshawar camp for Pakistanis displaced by fighting in the surrounding areas between the army and Taliban militants.
‘Everyday people’ interviewed on the street cite deadly drone attacks and the struggles of the poor as their top concerns. Obama is to meet with the presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan this week.
By Mark Magnier
May 5, 2009
Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Many Pakistanis welcomed the election of President Obama as an opportunity for some fresh thinking about their troubled region.
But the honeymoon hasn’t lasted long. As Obama prepares to meet with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai this week in Washington, Pakistanis from different walks of life say they’d give the U.S. leader an earful if they, rather than their president, had a seat at the White House table.
One of their biggest complaints: the deadly drones, the hugely unpopular unmanned aircraft that are involved in spying and firing on suspected “high value” militants on Pakistani soil.
“These drones are very bad,” said Ashraf Bhatti, an apparel merchant, drinking tea in his shop with several friends in the Anjuman bazaar in Lahore. “What would America think if someone started shooting rockets and killing people in their land?”
Though the CIA has apparently gotten better at hitting its targets without killing as many innocent civilians, the anger and resentment remain so great, some here argue, that America loses far more in goodwill than it gains in assassinated militants.
“It just hits everyday people like us,” said Mohammed Yasin, a retired shopkeeper, wearing a white beard and traditional shalwar kameez outfit.
Some Pakistanis said they would be less distrustful of U.S. motives and objectives if Washington put a quick end to its “Af-Pak” terminology, strategy and mind-set.
The American approach is meant to combine policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in a single cohesive plan. But people here say that although the region may look like one big mess from afar, there’s a world of difference between themselves and their neighbors to the west.
Pakistan, they say, is a proper nation with a functioning government, respected universities, a long-standing legal tradition and a vibrant arts tradition. Afghanistan is a land without much in the way of law, government or other conventional definitions of a nation, some contend.
“The majority of Pakistanis really don’t want to be put in the same category,” said Abid Sulehri, head of Islamabad’s Sustainable Development Policy Institute. “It’s very bad if they continue to use that term.”
At the same time, many here remain deeply critical of their own government, which is seen as slow, corrupt and woefully negligent in bringing basic education, electricity, roads and jobs to its people.
Zardari, moreover, is not terribly popular. The former businessman faced corruption allegations for years before he was elected, which occurred on a wave of sympathy for his assassinated wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
“Whatever he’s going to do there, he will do it for himself, not the country,” said Nasrem, 50, a seamstress who declined to give her family name. “Most Pakistanis spend all their time worrying about making ends meet. No one likes him.”
But that doesn’t stop many from blaming the West for pouring so much money into the Pakistani military and, inadvertently, the pockets of top officials without better oversight and more spending on programs for ordinary people.
“Since Pakistan was created, whenever America needs something it makes promises but never delivers,” said Anjun Mushtaq, 39, a fruit seller in Islamabad’s Faruqi Market. “It’s always the poor people who get left out.”
This dovetails with a common view at street level — justified or not — that the U.S. wouldn’t stand in the way if the military were to take over again because it prefers a government that carries out its “suggestions” faster.
Democracy is messy, particularly here, Pakistanis acknowledge, as the country emerges from years of strong-arm rule under Gen. Pervez Musharraf. But some say the fact that the public has begun to turn against the Taliban shows the dividends that accrue when people have a bigger stake in their own more representative government.
“The U.S. should say in advance, ‘The moment there’s a military takeover, we’re not going to deal with [or financially support] dictators,’ ” said Fasi Zaka, a radio talk-show host, academic and political columnist. “There’s been a view that the U.S. is willing to sacrifice Pakistan’s democracy to preserve its own.”