Pakistan moves to hire Washington lobbyists amid strained U.S. ties

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan is looking to hire lobbying firms in Washington after a gap of nearly eight years, seeking to refurbish its image in the United States at a time of deteriorating relations between the allies, two government officials told Reuters on Tuesday.

Ties have been particularly strained following a U.S. unmanned aircraft strike that killed top Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in western Pakistan last month, which Islamabad protested was a violation of its sovereignty.

Relations have also been tense since a plan to buy eight F-16 fighter jets from the United States fell through this May after the U.S. Congress refused to approve the deal.

The deal, valued at $699 million, came unstuck after Congress refused to authorize the use of U.S. government funds to pay for the aircraft under the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program.

“Pakistan used to have lobbyists in Washington ... Now we want to relaunch the effort,” said a senior government official, who asked not to be identified, as he was not authorized to speak to the media on the record.

Islamabad dropped its official lobbying efforts during the 1999-2008 military rule of General Pervez Musharraf, the official said, adding that the government had now decided it needed help selling its image.

“Look at India and other countries, and how aggressive their public relations is,” the official added.

“In light of this, and most recently, of course, the whole episode with the F-16s, Pakistan has decided that it has to step up its lobbying efforts in D.C.”

A second government official in the prime minister’s media team confirmed the decision, saying it aimed at stepping up efforts to “sell Pakistani interests and improve its image in the United States”.

The official added, “We are fighting this war on terror at great cost to lives and our economy. Yet we keep hearing that we have to do more. Clearly there is a public relations gap.”

Neither official would name the lobbying firms Pakistani officials are talking to.

Pakistan was shortlisting prospective lobbying firms, foreign policy chief Sartaj Aziz on Monday told a Senate meeting on defense and foreign affairs, the Dawn newspaper reported.

Some jets in Pakistan’s fleet of F-16s are due to be decommissioned in the next few years and the government says it needs the aircraft to fight Islamist militants in remote mountains near neighboring Afghanistan.

It is now considering buying used F-16 fighter jets from Jordan.

Writing by Mehreen Zahra-Malik; Editing by Clarence Fernandez