Despite Aid, Pakistanis Are Suspicious of the U.S.

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Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

A girl whose family was displaced by flooding lines up on Aug. 27, 2010, for food rations at a relief camp run by the Pakistani army near Sukkur in Sindh province, Pakistan

The villagers were kept away from the Americans by a flimsy barbed-wire fence near a cornfield and overseen by Pakistani soldiers. All road-transportation routes to their town of Patan, in the rugged Kohistan district of the insurgency-plagued northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, had been entirely cut off by Pakistan's devastating monthlong deluge. But the crowd showed little warmth or enthusiasm for the crew aboard the U.S. Marine helicopter who had flown in badly needed supplies. They stood silently in the rain as several of the soldiers, aided by a local civilian in a blue shalwar kameez and white skull cap, rapidly unloaded the chopper, transferring much-needed bottled water, 50-kg bags of flour emblazoned with the stars-and-stripes USAID logo and boxes of fortified biscuits donated by the World Food Program. No waves, no smiles or handshakes — just curious, silent stares. In less than 10 minutes the chopper was back in the air, headed for the Ghazi Pakistan army aviation base to reload.

Although the U.S.'s massive $200 million relief package and its swift on-the-ground assistance have been warmly welcomed by politicians and the media, many Pakistanis remain suspicious of American motives. "Of course stranded people have a very positive view of America because they are their saviors," says Adnan Aurangzeb, a former member of the National Assembly from the Swat district bordering Kohistan and the grandson of the last royal ruler, or wali, of Swat. "It's fine that you see a Chinook or a Black Hawk land [in Swat] and a sack of rice with a U.S. flag on it, but that must be sustained. It must be seen that you are the friend of the people of Pakistan rather than the friend of just the government or the military."

The litany of Pakistani complaints about the U.S. are well known: Washington tolerates corrupt and authoritarian leaders because it needs their support in Afghanistan, some say. Others say the U.S. is a fickle ally that will withdraw from Afghanistan and leave Pakistan to clean up its mess. And, of course, many Pakistanis buy into the jihadist view that America is at war with Islam. A Pew Research Center survey released last month revealed that 60% of Pakistanis view the U.S as an enemy, while just 11% say it is a partner. Those are staggering figures considering the $15 billion in military and economic aid that Washington has poured into Pakistan since 9/11. Money clearly can't buy love for the Americans in Pakistan.

"This aid is not going to win hearts and minds. That $15 billion [hasn't] and this won't," says Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser for the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace. "It will not do it because the problem the Pakistanis have with the U.S. is political. So you can throw money at the problem — it will ease your burden, but it will not solve it."

The only time anti-Americanism dipped in the past decade, according to a recent study written by Yusuf, was when American Chinook helicopters facilitated the 2005 postearthquake relief efforts in northern Pakistan. But that goodwill, the Pew figures indicate, was short-lived.

This time around, the U.S. is again providing one of the largest international contributions to the Pakistan relief effort. To date, the 15 U.S. military helicopters working out of Ghazi in northern Pakistan and three C-130 aircraft making daily runs from Bagram in Afghanistan have delivered more than 1.1 million kg of relief supplies, and have airlifted more than 8,800 people from flood-affected areas in the former militant strongholds of Swat and its surroundings, including Kohistan. The Pentagon also recently announced that it is dispatching an additional 18 helicopters to Pakistan for flood relief.

Brigadier General Michael Nagata, deputy chief of the office of the defense representative to Pakistan who is overseeing U.S. military relief aid, is quick to emphasize that the U.S. military isn't in Pakistan "to burnish our own image." However, he concedes that if the joint Pakistani and U.S. military assistance has "beneficial effects regarding the U.S. image here or the relationship between our countries, that would be tremendously valuable."

Nagata, who was on the Marine CH-53E that delivered relief goods to Patan in Kohistan, brushed aside questions about the locals' muted reaction to U.S. help: "I've seen absolutely nothing but gratitude for what we are delivering," he says. To be fair, technical problems with the Marine helicopter cut short that day's relief deliveries, and TIME was unable to witness other distributions. But both Aurangzeb and Yusuf say the reaction in Kohistan wasn't surprising.

"If [the supplies were delivered] in Punjab or Sindh, I think the reaction would have been different. It may not be people hugging the Americans because there's too much mistrust for that to happen, but I think over time there will be appreciation that will set in," says Yusuf.

Aurangzeb says the problem is a lack of long-term tangible assistance in the form of bridges or dams, for example, to show Pakistanis how much the U.S. has contributed to the country. U.S. assistance has to be "projected and advertised," he says. There is a bridge in Swat, he explains, built by the Japanese and with Japanese flags etched into the sides of the structure. "Every time people pass by the bridge they refer to it as the Japanese bridge. It became part of the vocabulary of the people of that area," he says. "But there's no such thing as an American bridge and there should be."