LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Pakistan charm offensive rolled into a wall of suspicion at one of the country’s top universities on Thursday as students drilled her on whether America was truly ready to be a steadfast partner in a time of crisis.
Clinton, on the second day of a three-day visit aimed at turning around a U.S.-Pakistan relationship under serious strain, was presented with stark evidence of the “trust deficit” that yawns between the two countries, now bound together in the struggle against religious extremism.
“What guarantee can the Americans give Pakistanis that we can now trust you … and that you guys are not going to be betraying us like you did in the past,” one student asked at a “townhall-style” meeting Clinton held at the Government College University in Lahore.
Clinton, who has sought to use her own personal outreach to overcome rising anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, repeated her conviction that the two countries’ common interests far outweighed their differences.
“I am well aware that there is a trust deficit,” Clinton said. “My message is that’s not the way it should be. We cannot let a minority of people in both countries determine our relationship.”
Clinton’s arrival in Pakistan on Wednesday was overshadowed by a huge car bomb blast that ripped through a market in the city of Peshawar, one of the largest recent attacks by Islamic militants seeking to destabilize the nuclear-armed country.
Clinton urged Pakistan’s youth to stand firm against the forces of religious extremism, saying it threatened everything that both Americans and Pakistanis hold dear.
She carried the same message in her meetings with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and other high officials in Islamabad on Wednesday.
Clinton was due to meet Pakistan’s army and security chiefs on Thursday, where she was expected to discuss Pakistan’s latest military campaign against extremists in South Waziristan as well as the U.S.-led war against Taliban religious militants in neighboring Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have cast Clinton’s visit to Pakistan as a chance to counter anti-American broadsides from extremist religious leaders and to showcase Clinton’s personal affinity for a country she says she knows and loves deeply.
On Thursday, she toured the massive red sandstone Badshahi Mosque in central Lahore, extolling the cultural achievements of a country more often in the headlines for political and religious strife.
But the tense security situation in Pakistan was clear. Gunmen stood guard in the mosque minarets, while Lahore’s normally busy main streets were emptied and armed police kept bystanders penned back in narrow alleyways as Clinton’s motorcade sped past.
Tensions also simmered in Clinton’s meeting with university students, who peppered her with questions about Washington’s perceived policy slant toward Pakistan’s longtime rival India, the use of unmanned “drones” to attack targets in Pakistan and whether or not the United States would support a treason trial for Pakistan’s former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Some of the toughest questions centered on the Kerry-Lugar bill, a recent piece of U.S. legislation which aims to triple U.S. assistance to Pakistan to some $7 billion over the next five years, but which contains conditions which many Pakistanis regard as an affront to their sovereignty.
Clinton repeated that Washington’s argument that the bill’s conditions are merely a measurement of effectiveness — but conceded that the “we did not do a very good job communication in what our intentions were.”
While acknowledging the many bumps in U.S.-Pakistan relations, Clinton nevertheless asked for understanding, patience and commitment – saying her own experience in deciding the join the Obama administration after running against Barack Obama for the presidency was instructive.
“What we have together is far greater than what divided us,” Clinton said, referring to her relations with Obama. “And that is what I feel about the United States and Pakistan.”