Clinton’s arm-twisting diplomacy in Pakistan

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went on the offensive during her three-day visit to Pakistan that was concluded yesterday. Her comments were blunt and combative, and the Pakistani press labeled her approach as “aggressive diplomacy.”

The intended purpose of Clinton’s visit was to drum up support for the ongoing war against al Qaeda and to pressure the Pakistani government to do more in fighting insurgents. Apparently, she checked whatever diplomatic skills she might have at the door and her remarks to her hosts were anything but diplomatic.

She at one point hinted that Pakistani officials are reluctant to pursue al Qaeda. "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 her Pakistani interlocutors during an interview with journalists in Lahore.

Clinton’s comments were on the wrong track as they were made at time when the Pakistan’s army was busy fighting tribal insurgents in Waziristan on the heels of its two-month offensive in the Swat valley in Northeast Pakistan. Pakistan has also single-handedly captured the largest number of al Qaeda operatives since 2002. The military involvement in the war on terrorism has started to take a heavy toll on the Pakistani population and threatens to destabilize the country if insurgents continue to bring the fight to Pakistan’s major cities.

Her “offensive diplomacy” was, however, right on target when she encouraged a group of businessmen to hold their government accountable for improving public services. The exchange came in response to protest over language included in the Kerry-Lugar Bill that provided up to $7.2 billion in foreign aid to Pakistan. The Bill requires the Pakistani government to reduce military meddling in civil society and support public services.

"At the risk of sounding undiplomatic, Pakistan has to have internal investment in your public services and your business opportunities," Clinton told her audience. She went on to express worries about the lack of long term planning to deal with mounting developmental challenges. "You do have 180 million people. Your population is projected to be about 300 million. And I don’t know what you’re gonna do with that kind of challenge, unless you start planning right now," she said.

Pakistan’s spending on public services is alarmingly low. It allocated, for instance, a meager Rs. 4 billion ($48 million) for higher education. Rs. 23 billion ($280 million) out of 2009-10 budget that totaled Rs. 2.482 trillion ($29 billion). Its budget allocation for primary and basic education was even much lower with only Rs. 22.5 billion ($270 million). Spending less than 1% of total budget on education is alarmingly low for a country with over 50% illiteracy rate.

The question that Clinton and the Obama administration would have to confront head on is whether the United States over relying on military solutions would be counterproductive and could destabilize Pakistan in the long run. Ordinary Pakistanis’ increased discomfort with the use of military force in tribal areas is evident by the public and unsubtle reaction to Clinton’s remarks.

Sana Bucha of Geo TV told Clinton during the live broadcast interview, "it is not our war. It is your war." Bucha went on to say "you had one 9/11. We are having daily 9/11s in Pakistan," and to draw a burst of applause from the studio audience.