AS SOON AS American and Pakistani officials reported that Times Square bomb suspect Faisal Shahzad received terrorist training at a camp in Pakistan, charges of a conspiracy to harm that country appeared in the Pakistani media. This sort of thinking is all too common in Pakistan. It serves as both cause and effect of America’s low standing in Pakistani public opinion. It also plays into the hands of violent groups that recruit susceptible youth to conduct terrorist operations, whether in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, or the United States.
The fight against terrorism is first and foremost a war of ideas, or at least a contest between conflicting narratives. And in Pakistan, the anti-American narrative has been winning. Students at elite universities recently assailed a lecturer from America with questions about a covert CIA role in perpetrating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Both the US and Pakistani governments have done too little to counter this kind of paranoid propaganda.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan last fall offered an example of what more US officials should be doing. When challenged by Pakistani journalists, Clinton said that she would hear all their complaints about America, but that the relationship had to be “a two-way street.’’ After her visit, America’s favorability rating with the Pakistani public spiked upward. Others, including President Obama, ought to emulate Clinton’s direct appeal to the people of Pakistan.
Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders also must do more. They cannot go on ignoring Taliban-type propaganda disseminated in both state-run and independent media. The fight against terrorism is their fight, even more than it is America’s; they must lead the charge, in public, against the conspiratorial thinking that is eating away at the foundations of the Pakistani state.