Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Pakistan today for one of the longest visits by a U.S. diplomat in years, an attempt to combat rising anti-Americanism here and convince a skeptical Pakistani public that the United States is a long-term, dependable ally.
"I hope on this trip I will be able to start that ball rolling, so to speak, so that maybe some in your country will say, 'I really didn't have a good opinion before -- I thought it was all about, are you going to be with us or against us on the war on terrorism? But this is a new day,'" Clinton told Pakistan's leading English newspaper, Dawn, ahead of her trip.
"That's why we're turning a new page. And I hope part of what I can convey on my trip is exactly that message."
Her three-day visit, conducted under extraordinary security, comes in the middle of one of the Pakistani military's most important operations since 9/11, a 30,000-troop offensive into South Waziristan, where Pakistan says more than 80 percent of the attacks in the country are planned.
Militants have timed an onslaught of attacks with the beginning of the operation, including a frontal assault on the military's headquarters and multiple assassination attempts in the capital, Islamabad.
About 200 Pakistanis have been killed in terrorist attacks in the past three weeks, including at least 80 today in a market bombing in Peshawar.
The U.S. has been pushing for just such an army offensive, officials say, believing it will help eliminate a Taliban and al Qaeda sanctuary, likely reducing militancy in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But the army warns that even though it is receiving significant assistance from the United States for the operation, publicly admitting such aid would risk losing the support of the Pakistani public.
Clinton's chief challenge is fighting that sentiment, Pakistani and U.S. officials admit: trying to shift public attitudes so that a U.S.-backed military operation and a U.S.-backed government are not immediately dismissed by increasingly anti-American Pakistanis.
"What we desire and what we have planned is for this to be seen as a pure Pakistani military operation without any outside interference or without any outside support; because that is at the cost of public support," said chief military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas. "The moment it gets connected with something outside, then the public starts getting other ideas."
Many Pakistanis blame the deteriorating security situation on the United States' involvement in neighboring Afghanistan. "If I could talk to her I'd say to stop interfering here," said Shahid, using only name, while shopping in an Islamabad market. "Wherever in the world they've been involved, there is no peace."
Shahid said he was dismayed by the security situation in the capital, usually a leafy, relatively quiet city that is now filled with dozens of checkpoints. Intelligence agents here say they fear militants are trying to launch a major attack inside the heart of the city.
For Shahid, what affected him most was an unprecedented step the government took in the past 10 days: shutting all public schools. "I took my son to school, but at the gate they told me that the school is closed. I felt like crying when my son asked why the school was closed.
"Now -- what should I tell him? Should I tell him at this small age that, 'Son, there are bomb blasts and that are at danger from terrorists?'