ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday pressed her one-woman blitz on Pakistani public opinion, bluntly challenging the country to defend its territory from an onslaught by religious extremists and asking why Pakistan's powerful military was unable to find Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Venturing where leading local politicians rarely go, she told university students in Lahore that Pakistan will have to fight the extremists unless "you want to see your territory shrink."
She delighted her audience by emphasizing her opposition to former President George W. Bush, saying the difference with the current administration was "like daylight and dark."
America's top diplomat also wondered out loud why Pakistan hadn't been more successful in tracking down al Qaida's top leaders, including bin Laden, who are widely thought to be hiding in the country. "I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn't get them if they really wanted to," Clinton told newspaper editors in Lahore.
Two days into her three-day visit, however, Pakistani analysts said that distrust of the United States was so deep that Clinton had little hope of swaying attitudes. Islamabad may be a crucial partner in the U.S. drive against Islamic terrorists, but the anti-American attitude is so engrained that the Pakistani public, news media and political opposition blame the surge of violence in the country in large part on the U.S. presence in the region.
Even many liberal and highly educated Pakistanis believe far-fetched theories that claim that the United States is secretly backing Islamic extremists in order to destabilize Pakistan, so that Washington can seize its nuclear weapons.
Pakistani commentators praised Clinton's spirit, however, for touring a country in which the president, Asif Ali Zardari, is rarely seen in public out of his fear for his safety.
Clinton took on a panel of six of Pakistan's most aggressive talk-show hosts in a television appearance Wednesday, and she eagerly engaged the students in Lahore. The students berated the United States over drone strikes in Pakistan and questioned American concerns over Islamabad talking to Taliban extremists, but they seemed to advocate U.S. negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Security issues haunt the U.S-Pakistani relationship, and the torrent of recent terrorist violence bewilders Pakistanis, many of whom are reluctant to accept that the militants who were national heroes are now the enemy. Pakistani democrats, meanwhile, resent the U.S. support lavished on military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who stepped down only last year.
"She's impressive, insofar as she's candid, but there are fundamental policy issues, the most basic one being whether the United States understands the legitimate security concerns that the state and society both face in Pakistan," said Nasim Zehra, the host of a popular political chat show on Pakistan's Dunya TV, who sparred with Clinton on-screen Wednesday. "It is unprecedented that the secretary of state should decide to come and say all of this. We'll now see if she's bold enough to initiate policy change."
While Clinton is meeting top Pakistani civilian and military officials, her visit is focused on public diplomacy. She told the students in Lahore that "I am well aware that there is a trust deficit" between the countries. American officials were baffled by the intensity of criticism leveled at a recent U.S. aid bill, which imposed tough conditions on Pakistan. They seemed unaware of the need to put their case before the country's Urdu-language news channels.
"A lot of this visit is about taming the beast that is the Pakistani media. They had not understood the vernacular news channels and the power they've gained in the last few years," said Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Dawn, a Pakistani daily newspaper.
"When the military dictator (Musharraf) exited the stage and they found that people are still blaming America for virtually everything that goes wrong out here, that's when they started to realize that there are deeper issues," Almeida told McClatchy.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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