Amid dark times, a brighter side of US-Pakistan ties

The largest US cultural and educational exchange program of any US embassy in the world is run from Pakistan. Proponents tout its success.

Tensions between Pakistan and the United States spiked when Adm. Mike Mullen accused Pakistan's spy agency of aiding insurgents who attacked the US Embassy in Kabul last month.

All eyes, it seemed, were on the back and forth. What would become of the relationship, analysts and headlines asked. But there's a quiet diplomatic drive that has been working since 9/11 to build positive ties between the US and Pakistan: exchange programs.

Every year, more than 2,000 Pakistanis participate in a range of initiatives, from English-language scholarships to fully funded academic or professional-development programs in the US. Taken together, these initiatives – run by the US Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital – make up the largest cultural and educational exchange program of any US embassy in the world, according to US officials here. And despite misunderstandings and some rough edges, it seems to be working.

For Haider Mirza, the year of high school he spent at Nature Coast Technical High School in Brooksville, Fla., in 2005 taught him that the American foreign policies that are so unpopular with citizens back home are beyond the American public's control.

"The Iraq war was at its peak, and [even Americans] were asking 'Why are we there?' " he says. "Six years on, I still defend America if people make unjustified comments."

That kind of result makes these exchanges worth it, say officials. The Youth Exchange and Study Program that Mr. Mirza participated in was an exchange program authorized by Congress in the aftermath of Sept. 11 to increase understanding between the US and Muslim nations.

"These programs are instrumental in expanding the positive view people will have of the US," says Mosharraf Zaidi, a political columnist. Reciprocal exchanges from the US are few, given safety concerns, but the State Department says it is working to increase the number of American participants. In April, 15 American academics came to work in Pakistani universities and research institutions, but that's up from only two last year.

"The more exposure there is, the better.... [It's] beneficial in the long run for both countries to engage with each other more," says Mr. Zaidi.

US officials agree: "The vast majority come back with a much improved view of the US. It brings out the core values of each other's countries," says Brent Beemer, a US State Department official involved in the program in Islamabad.

Despite pouring in more than $20.7 billion in aid to Pakistan since 2002 (roughly two-thirds was military aid, the rest civilian), US lawmakers often complain that Pakistan does not cooperate as much as hoped. Pakistan's military establishment at times deliberately stokes anti-Americanism to create an environment where it can claim its hands are tied in taking more effective action against insurgents, according to foreign-policy experts.

But for Afnan Khan, the Lahore bureau chief of the Daily Times, his month-long visit to US government departments and newsrooms helped dispel some of his concerns.

"These mullahs [in Pakistan] have convinced the people [that] America is our No. 1 enemy," he says. "But I think our governments are a bit dishonest about the fact they are consuming American money. They only say Americans are bombing our cities and killing our people."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.