Students meet Clinton's charm offensive with stern resistance

By Andrew Buncombe in Lahore
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The Independent Online

Hillary Clinton yesterday received a first-hand dose of the widespread antipathy and scepticism for the US inside Pakistan when she went head to head with students questioning the motives behind her country's foreign policy.

Protesters gathered outside the Government College University in Lahore carrying banners claiming that a US aid package to Pakistan undermined the country's sovereignty. The mood was only a little warmer inside the college as students lined up to quiz the US Secretary of State during an hour-long question and answer session.

"Whatever America is saying, we do not care," said one protester, Ahmed Shaheen, the member of a conservative Islamist students' organisation whose members gathered outside the college. "Because of the way they have behaved in the past, we would not want their aid even if it was free."

Mrs Clinton is on a mission to win over hearts and minds here as the administration of President Barack Obama seeks to reframe America's relationship with Pakistan while continuing to pressure the authorities to keep up their operation against Taliban and al-Qa'ida militants.

She is doing so with a mixture of charm and hard-headedness. Going out of her way to meet the country's senior journalists, as well as top politicians, Mrs Clinton has already won favourable headlines for her ready-to-listen manner and acknowledgement of past mistakes. At the same time, she has not hesitated from responding to blows with her own deftly-delivered counterpunches.

"I am well aware that there is a trust deficit," she said in Lahore. "My message is that's not the way it should be. We cannot let a minority of people in both countries determine our relationship."

Yet at a meeting of the city's newspaper editors, she was ready to show more steel. "I am more than willing to hear every complaint about the United States, but this is a two -way street if we are going to have a mature partnership where we work together," she said. "I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where [Osama bin Laden and his senior al-Qa'ida colleagues are] and couldn't get them if they really wanted to. There are issues that not just the United States, but others have with your government and with your military security establishment."

A $7.5bn US aid bill for Pakistan has attracted widespread criticism within the country for alleged "conditions" attached to it. The US has said these measures are simply checks to ensure the money is used correctly but many within Pakistan, in particular the military establishment, have claimed they have reduced the country to a client state of Washington.

Mrs Clinton, who wrapped herself in a bright blue headscarf as she visited the cultural capital's 16th century Badshahi mosque, claimed the Obama administration wanted a new relationship with Islamabad that differed from that of the government of George Bush. Her best laugh came when she said she spent her "entire eight years in the Senate opposing" the former president.

Yet the reality is more complex. While Mr Obama may make more noises about supporting the democratic institutions in Pakistan than his predecessor, the pressure of the US on Pakistan to strike against militants blamed for carrying out cross-border attacks in Afghanistan has not reduced. Indeed, since Mr Obama assumed office there has been a marked increase in the number of US drone strikes against suspected militant targets in Pakistan's tribal areas – a development that has led to numerous civilian casualties and widespread anger from students, journalists and protesters.