x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Ordinary Pakistanis wait for US 'rewards'

The public say the political elite has squandered aid and that Washington could gain support if it made sure its money improved life for the poor.

People displaced by the fighting in Swat queue for food at a camp in north-west Pakistan.
People displaced by the fighting in Swat queue for food at a camp in north-west Pakistan.

ISLAMABAD // On the dawn of a multibillion-dollar rescue programme from the United States, ordinary Pakistanis are wary of aid from what many consider at best a fair-weather friend and at worst a hostile state intent on stealing its nuclear arsenal. Pakistan is set to receive US$1.5 billion (Dh5.5bn) a year for the next five to 10 years from Washington in a massive civilian aid package aimed at fighting poverty and preventing the country from falling under the sway of a minority of extremists. It represents a tripling of US non-military aid for Islamabad. Underscoring the West's sense of urgency in stabilising the country considered key to defeating al Qa'eda and allied extremist groups, Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, last month called Pakistan's north-west frontier with Afghanistan the "crucible of terrorism". The aid drive, outlined in a bill introduced in early May in the US Senate by the Democrat John Kerry, who chairs the Senate foreign relations committee, and the Republican senator Dick Lugar, targets economic growth, development and governance. The proposed package would "empower the moderates, who will have something concrete to put forward as evidence that friendship with America brings rewards as well as perils," Mr Kerry told the Senate. With two million people displaced by fighting between the Pakistan army and resurgent Taliban in the volatile north-west, a weakened government, a separate insurgency in the south-west and poor infrastructure especially in the power sector, beleaguered President Asif Ali Zardari has been calling on the US and other foreign donors for an aid drive. In the bazaars of Islamabad, mixed with bristling expectations of a windfall of cash and jobs are cautions against corrupt misuse of the funds and a weariness with so much US money focused on "tanks and guns". The consensus was that real benefit would only come if the aid is directed at job creation, education, health care and agriculture - and intensively monitored. The bill states in its summary: "The status quo is not working: the United States believes it is paying too much and getting too little - and most Pakistanis believe exactly the opposite."   Such sentiment was echoed by Altaf Wani, a businessman in Islamabad's central Jinnah marketplace. "The United States has to prove that it is not against Muslims or Pakistan through actions not rhetoric," Mr Wani said. "This package may help to show that the Obama administration is genuinely interested in the welfare of common Pakistanis. If the US invests in the social sector and helps Pakistanis improve their lives it can bring positive change." Muhammad Javed, a garment shop manager, cautioned that many of the displaced two million people are at risk of falling into the arms of radical mosques and madrassas. "The US should spend huge resources on rehabilitating these people as it is the war on terror which has displaced them. Otherwise mosques and madrassas will become the only alternative for them to get refuge and food for their children," Mr Javed said. Access to US and European markets for Pakistani exports should form part of the aid package, he stressed. "The people of Pakistan want to see the soft face of the US now," said Afiya Rasool, a housewife. "So far they've just provided us tanks and guns instead of libraries or sport complexes." More than $10bn handed over by Washington since September 11 has gone to Pakistan's military for battling militants. Mrs Rasool said aid would be better spent on schools in Balochistan and the North West Frontier Province, the two western provinces she called "the breeding grounds of regional terrorism". "If we provide them education the locals may aspire for a better life," she said. Ghulam Abbas, a security guard, is typical of the thousands of poor villagers from outside Islamabad paid less than $100 a month to wear blue uniforms and guard the homes of diplomats and officials. "I live in a poor locality. We do not have clean water, nor do we have access to education or health care," he said in the Super Market bazaar. "If the US builds schools and provides our children books and uniforms it could bring a revolution in our lives. The ruling class is sucking our blood. Whatever they get from abroad they disperse among themselves. Nothing reaches the poor. The US should also invest in projects that create a large number of jobs. Joblessness makes people vulnerable to falling into the hands of terrorists as they promise rewards not only in this world but in the hereafter." Rashid Butt, an administrative clerk, said "swift economic turnaround" could result if the aid is directed to agriculture, education and health care. "Our inept administration and political elite always misused public money and hardly any funds go towards public interest projects. Had they used earlier aid honestly we could be in a better position now." Mr Butt, 39, added: "We should also engage maximum people in dialogue to detach them from terrorist outfits." Asad Shah, a student, espoused the more cynical view of US involvement in Pakistan as hostile interference with destructive intent. "I'm not pleased that Pakistan got billions of dollars by killing its own citizens in the Swat valley and the tribal areas," said Mr Shah, 23, drinking tea at a stall in the Peshawar More bazaar. "Zardari was rewarded by the Obama administration for killing more and more innocent fellow citizens. The people of Pakistan should not accept this aid and should strive to live within their own means." He called the 80,000 mainly US foreign troops in Afghanistan a destabilising force and considered them "the region's major cause of militancy and terrorism", a view held by many Pakistanis. "The US cannot and does not want to help or rescue Pakistan. They just want to deprive us of our nuclear assets and subdue us before Indian hegemony." bcurran@thenational.ae