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US Losing Ground in Fight for Public Opinion in Pakistan


Karen Hughes, a close adviser to President Bush, takes on the job as Washington's top public relations official this week as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. Ms. Hughes will be responsible for promoting America's image abroad and defending its policies to a sometimes skeptical global audience. One of the toughest challenges will be in Pakistan, where U.S. diplomats are already struggling to reverse anti-American sentiment on the front lines of the war on terrorism.

Thousands of demonstrators burn American flags and curse the United States as they march through the streets of Islamabad. The protest, held in May, followed allegations that U.S. officials desecrated the Koran at the American detention camp for suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

For U.S. diplomats struggling to improve America's reputation in Pakistan, the incident was a bruising step backward, and a case study in the challenges they must confront.

The allegations that sparked the protests turned out to be false. But by the time the story had been retracted, the damage had already been done.

Militant religious leaders and opposition politicians used the allegations to attack the U.S.-led war on terrorism and U.S. ally, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

U.S. Embassy Spokesman Greg Crouch says challenging false allegations before they become accepted as fact is the key to gaining public support in Pakistan.

"Everyday I read something that completely misrepresents our policy," he said. "The United States is demonized in the press… What we're trying to do is cut through that misinformation. Show people who we really are, what motivates us, what is the context for our foreign policies…"

He says the U.S. Embassy is launching an ambitious education program to reintroduce and redefine America in Pakistan.

In May, Washington expanded its development assistance to Pakistan, providing almost $150 million to improve local schools, health centers and businesses. This month, the embassy announced another $100 million to pay for at least a 1,000 Pakistanis to study in the United States. New libraries stocked with books about American history and culture are also being built in major cities across Pakistan.

But Mr. Crouch says the programs will only work if people participate, and that can be difficult given the current political climate.

"We had many parents of high school students who have actually told their children not to participate in these programs because there is so much suspicion and in some cases fear about what America is," he added.

But critics of the programs say the American campaign misses the point.

Pakistani political commentator Ayaz Amir says people resent America's war on terror and its military actions, which have focused on only two Muslim countries - Iraq and Afghanistan. He says new schools and scholarships won't change the way people see the United States.

"There is a certain innocence to American policy that rubs off the wrong way. By thinking, for example, that throwing money at certain projects will get it good will. It doesn't happen that way," he said.

In fact, a recent survey suggests America is actually losing ground in Pakistan. Polling by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found more than 50 percent of Pakistan is sympathetic to al-Qaida terrorist leader Osama bin Ladin. That is up six percent in the last two years.

U.S. officials insist they are on the right track in Pakistan but are hindered by factors beyond their control.

Embassy staffers say security concerns keep them from traveling beyond the U.S. compound and developing stronger ties with their local counterparts.

Aid agencies, some of which receive millions of dollars from the United States, say they are reluctant to publicize the U.S. support, fearing possible attacks from anti-American extremists.

There is also growing concern that Washington's key ally in Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf, is less than 100 percent committed to the American agenda.

Mr. Musharraf claims he has destroyed al-Qaida's network in Pakistan and is reigning in Islamic militants.

But almost four years after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, security experts say Pakistan remains a key breeding ground for Islamic extremism and terrorism.

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