Who is to blame for a rampant rumor, those who spread the rumor or those who fail to rectify it? For months media speculation over America’s new embassy - or super-fortress - in Islamabad, Pakistan has escaped control of US officials. August began to boil and caution quickly degenerated into panic and tirades. Officials tried to squelch the rumors at lower levels, but naturally the word didn’t reach all 180 million Pakistanis.
The ensuing propaganda battle has seen little more than finger pointing as each side tries to pin blame on the other, but are they missing the real point?
Pakistani public concerns have been overblown according to US and Pakistani officials. US ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson told reporters that Marines would total “less than 20” instead of 1,000 and wondered where the exaggeration came from. Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik insisted, “Blackwater is not operating in Pakistan. We have our own system, rules and regulations. We will not allow anybody to operate from here.” US officials maintain that expansion is necessary to handle a tripling of humanitarian aid. Pakistanis shouldn’t be concerned since America is only trying to help them.
Yet rumors persist as the press argues that their concerns are legitimate. A partial reason is a failure to confront the rumors head on, allowing to swell and build momentum. Malik tried to extinguish the controversy on August 26th, months after it began, and Patterson didn’t address the media until August 29th. The press pointed out that Pakistani officials are, “unable to speak the truth, conveying an impression as if they have something to hide.” The Pentagonisation of Pakistan easily finds a home in many Pakistani minds.
While ambassador Patterson took too long to give few details, and additionally suffers from poor relations with the press, at least she admitted, “We all are responsible for this bad image and are making efforts to remove this perception.” US embassy spokesman Richard Snelsire took the opposite route, claiming, “'The government is showing a lot of ineptitude. They should not create the impression that they are helpless, and they cannot tell the real story. There is a lot of, frankly, just misinformation out there, and it keeps getting published just over and over by a few journalists.”
Thus the real fault lies with Pakistan’s government, the media, and conspiracy theorists, not America. Beyond poor counterinsurgency, Snelsire’s outlook fails to recognize the depths of anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.
America and Pakistan are both justified and guilty in their actions. More resources are likely needed to handle increased relations, though exactly how many troops and buildings are necessary remains irritatingly ambiguous. Pakistan’s government has every right to work with America, but it can’t ignore the mood of its people. Pakistan's media is running wild, but it wasn’t corrected for months, a terrible indication of America’s propaganda capabilities. Though Pakistanis have a thousand reasons to distrust America, their fears are also overplayed - or perhaps misplaced is a better word. It seems America and Pakistan are both stuck on the surface.
They need to peak underneath and realize that the new embassy is a giant red bulls-eye. Now everyone has a reason to keep the project as minimalist and transparent as possible.
Though the threat may never materialize it stands to reason that if average Pakistanis oppose a high profile, controversial American embassy, it will also go on the target boards of militant groups. American embassies already make good targets, as seen in Beirut, Kenya, and Yemen. The new embassy in Islamabad is begging for a blast which America certainly doesn’t want. Or does it? One conspiracy theory leads to another.
Pakistanis have misplaced their fears. America couldn’t take over Pakistan with a 1,000 Marines if it wanted to. Pakistan won’t fall to the US embassy any more than Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will fall into terrorist’s hands. Even if Blackwater is entering the country the CIA has been operating undercover for decades. What Pakistanis should worry about is a militant attack on the embassy, for this may be used to justify a true increase in US military presence. Beneath sweet bait lies the poison.
Of course America would never admit to such a plan, and perhaps it doesn’t exist consciously, but only a fool could miss the potential for disaster. US embassies are bombed where extremism is active and anti-American sentiment runs high. Pakistan easily meets both requirements. America ideally wants more troops at the embassy and in the country in general, but has to refrain because of public opposition. An attack provides America with the best opportunity increase its presence; it certainly wouldn’t pack up and leave like after Beirut. However such a plan is sure to backfire. A terrorist attack would likely be met with indifference, not a boost of Pakistani support.
Ultimately the stiffest pressure falls on the Pakistani government, which has to juggle legitimate American diplomatic relations with rampant anti-Americanism. It can’t refuse America’s advances because it needs military and economic aid, but a potential attack will rip the war open even wider. Surely the government doesn’t want that either, as it would be threatened by renewed attacks and once more labeled a puppet regime. Neither America or Pakistan’s interests are furthered by this perception.
What is to be done then? Honesty alone won’t help, it must be quick honesty. Rumors are like freight trains and must be stopped before they leave the station. And words by themselves won’t suffice. America has no goodwill stored in Pakistan, so popularity must be hard-earned through action; keeping the embassy to its minimum specifications is essential. The Pakistan government must hold America accountable. America shouldn’t offer itself as bait, Pakistan can’t allow it to, and the militants shouldn’t bite such an obvious trap.
But these steps are still inadequate. Eventually America must find a way to escape from Afghanistan because Pakistani hatred will burn as long as the occupation continues. The tide has turned against the Taliban, but America is just as unwelcome in the region. The current heavy-handed approach is unsustainable in the long term, as it contradicts the will of Pakistan.