ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wound up a bridge-building visit to Pakistan on Friday leaving a pointed question ringing in her hosts’ ears: Where are the al Qaeda leaders operating in your country?
While no Pakistani officials were immediately prepared to answer, ordinary citizens told Washington’s top diplomat the country was living on a daily basis with the consequences of the September 11, 2001 attacks engineered by the militant Islamist group.
At a televised women’s forum on Friday, Clinton was pressed on U.S. attitudes toward Pakistan, questioned about the use of robot drones to attack suspected militants, and reminded of the costs the country faces as it battles its own insurgency.
“We are fighting a war that was imposed on us. It is not our war, it is your war,” television journalist Asma Shirazi told Clinton on the last day of her three-day visit to Pakistan.
“You had a 9-11. We are having daily 9-11s in Pakistan.”
Pakistan’s army is in the middle of a massive offensive against Taliban militants strongholds in South Waziristan that has prompted a spate of bloody revenge attacks on urban targets.
On Wednesday, when Clinton arrived, a car bomb in a market in the northwest city of Peshawar killed more than 100 people, mostly women and children, and wounded nearly 200.
The rough and rugged tribal territory separating Pakistan and Afghanistan is a stronghold for Taliban insurgents from both countries as well as a haven for al Qaeda operatives.
While most Pakistanis are against the extremists, many also believe they are fueled by Islamabad’s links with Washington.
On Thursday Clinton expressed disbelief no-one in authority knew where al Qaeda leaders were hiding out — a remark that may fuel much reaction once she leaves the country.
“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,” she told a group of newspaper editors during a meeting in Lahore.
Clinton’s pointed remark was the first public gripe on a trip aimed at turning around a U.S.-Pakistan relationship under serious strain, but bound in the struggle against religious extremism.
Clinton’s main message in Pakistan — that the forces binding Pakistanis and Americans together are far stronger than those dividing them — was constant, and she urged audiences to stand guard against extreme religious doctrine that seeks to impose its will on the population.
Many participating in Clinton’s numerous public appearances in Pakistan have expressed appreciation for U.S. backing for the country and for Clinton’s personal outreach.
But more frequently Clinton’s “people to people” diplomacy — with journalists, students and common people — has been characterized by sharp disagreements and deep distrust.
That is a potentially worrying sign for officials in Washington hoping to reverse a steep rise in anti-U.S. sentiment in the increasingly fragile nuclear armed country.
Through it all, Clinton has proved unflappable, acknowledging the “trust deficit” created by past U.S. mistakes while firmly responding to charges the United States does not have Pakistan’s best interests at heart.
Clinton, who professes deep personal affection for Pakistan and its people, was cautiously optimistic her visit may have changed a few hearts and minds among fearful Pakistanis although she said much more needed to be done to illustrate how the United States is helping the country.
“I’m going to try as hard as I can. But ultimately, we have to have actions between the two of us. Words are not enough,” she said at the women’s gathering.
As the Pakistan offensive in South Waziristan continued, officials in the port city of Karachi said they had arrested nearly 200 foreign nationals, mostly Afghans, in the past week in a security sweep.
“Most of these people have been arrested on charges of staying illegally in the country, but the main reason for this crackdown is to try and hunt militants hiding among these illegal refugees,” said a senior police official, requesting anonymity.
Police have also arrested several members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangavi group in recent days, recovering hundreds of kilograms of explosives, suicide jackets and other weapons.
Officials said security forces have arrested 18 suspected militants, including foreigners, in the northern town of Chitral as well.
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; Editing by Jerry Norton