ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Pakistan on Wednesday, pledging a fresh start in relations with an increasingly embattled and skeptical partner in the struggle against Islamic militancy.
“We are turning the page,” Clinton told reporters as she began her first visit to Islamabad as the top U.S. diplomat amid rising anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and an expanding U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan.
Clinton acknowledged that misunderstandings dogged U.S. ties with Pakistan and pledged to refocus the relationship on the “needs of the people” including strengthened economic assistance and development of democratic institutions.
She said several civilian investment deals would be announced during her visit as a sign of Washington’s commitment to the country, which has already seen the U.S. pledge to triple assistance to some $7 billion over the next five years.
Clinton’s three-day visit, kept secret out of security concerns, comes amid a surge of anti-U.S. feeling in Pakistan, which is increasingly bloodied in a campaign against Islamic fundamentalists that is being closely followed by the United States and other Western powers already embroiled in the conflict in neighboring Afghanistan.
Clinton said the Afghan conflict — where U.S. President Barack Obama is due soon to announce whether he will accept his military commander’s recommendation to sharply increase U.S. troop levels — would be one of the subjects discussed with Pakistani officials.
But much of the trip will center on Clinton’s personal outreach through interviews with the Pakistan media and personal appearances in the “townhall” meetings that have become one of her diplomatic trademarks.
Clinton — who on Monday turned 62, the same age as Pakistan itself — said that she looked forward to bringing the U.S. message directly to the Pakistani people.
“We have a relationship that we want to strengthen,” Clinton said. “And it is unfortunate that there are those who question our motives, perhaps are skeptical that we’re going to commit to a long-term relationship, and I want to try to clear the air on that,” she said.
Clinton’s public diplomacy began even before she left Washington. In two Pakistani television interviews conducted before her departure, said she would seek to emphasize the common goals that the American and Pakistani people have in fighting religious extremism.
“What do people in Pakistan want? Good jobs, good healthcare, good education for our children, energy that is predictable and reliable — the kinds of everyday needs that are really at the core of what Americans want,” she said.
She further urged Pakistanis to reject the narrow vision of religious extremists, who she compared to a foreign “tumor” in Pakistani society.
“They want to deny girls education. They want to prevent women from having an opportunity for healthcare and a better life.”
Clinton’s visit comes amid widespread Pakistani anger over a recent major U.S. aid bill for the country which, despite tripling assistance to Islamabad to some $1.5 billion per year for the next five years, has still been bitterly denounced for imposing conditions critics say violate national sovereignty.
The bill, known as Kerry-Lugar for its senatorial sponsors, mainly focuses on socio-economic development but also requires Clinton to certify to Congress that Pakistan is cooperating with efforts to dismantle nuclear weapons, combating militant groups and ensuring civilian government control over the powerful military.
“These aren’t conditions on Pakistan so much as they are metrics for measuring whether we think our aid is being productive,” Clinton said, noting that similar measures were used for other U.S. aid programs.
Clinton said she expected to get an update on Pakistan’s military campaign against Taliban Islamist insurgents in South Waziristan, which has emerged as a central front in the country’s increasingly violent struggle with religious extremists.
She repeated that although Pakistan has seen a string of spectacular attacks by insurgents, Washington had no qualms about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear armory — although she said would again bring up the dangers of nuclear proliferation.
Reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by David Fox