Will Obama Change U.S. Pakistan Policy?

Pakistanis hopeful of a new U.S. relationship under an Obama administration.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 5, 2008 -- Next to his milky tea, the flies covering his bread and the flickering TV with election results in the corner, even 24-year-old Ghulam Jaffer appreciated the moment.

Sitting in a small restaurant next to a bus stop, Jaffer put his food to the side long enough to talk about the man on the TV screen, the black man with the Muslim middle name who was waving to the crowd. Barack Hussein Obama had just been declared the 44th president of the United States.

"All our Muslim prayers are for Obama so he can bring a change in policies, especially President Bush's anti-Islamic policies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan," he said. "Every Pakistani is happy."

In this, the second largest Muslim country in the world, millions of Pakistanis hope the son of a Kenyan Muslim will remake U.S. policy here, which has become deeply controversial.

The United States has given Pakistan $13 billion since Sept. 11, 2001, but almost all of it has gone to the military and most Pakistanis have not seen a dime of difference. And in the last three months, the United States has launched an unprecedented number of drone attacks inside Pakistan that have targeted senior militants, but have also caused civilian casualties and irritated the country.

"There's a belief that Obama will certainly pursue policies that will move the United States away from the policies pursued by the Bush Administration in broad terms," said Tariq Fatmi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States. "We need to redefine the terms of engagement between Pakistan and the United States. Our importance should not be confined merely to the war on terror."

Osama bin Laden and his top deputies are believed to be hiding in Pakistan's tribal areas, and militants use the mostly ungoverned districts to launch attacks inside Pakistan as well as on American troops in Afghanistan.

But most diplomats and members of the elite here believe Obama will focus as much on helping Pakistan reconstruct its miserable economy and trying to provide a better future to people living in the tribal areas as on the war on terror. Vice President-elect Joe Biden is proposing a massive aid bill that bolsters the Pakistani frontier corps but also helps develop jobs, schools and clinics in Pakistan.

"Citizens are dying and they have migrated and are living in tents and this is all because of Bush," said 21-year-old Sher Zamin, a resident of the Bajaur tribal area. "The new president should stop these attacks and bring peace to the tribal areas so that everyone can go back home."

But this country does not forget its history, and it does not forget that after Pakistan exploded a nuclear weapon, the billions of dollars that flowed in here in the 1980s to fight the Soviets suddenly vanished. Pakistanis are skeptical that the United states will remain committed to this nuclear nation, and they are skeptical that Obama will deliver on his lofty promises that the United States "can be perfected."

"Him having a Muslim in his family, or being related to a Muslim, is not going to change his views. Because you see he is an American. He is the president of America," said Mehreen Tereq. "He is not going to be like just because I have a Muslim in his family, I should be sympathetic toward Muslims."

"Really didn't matter whether it was McCain or Obama, it was going to be the same policies implemented," 38-year-old Mohammad Fasil Aziz said. "Because it's already been decided."

Anne Paterson, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, seemed to agree during a rare television interview here today.

She told Dawn News that the U.S. military was undergoing a thorough review of its policies toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, a reference to new Central Command chief David Petraeus' plan to remake policy here.

But she predicted the president-elect's policy would look similar to that of the current president.

"I think any president, any new president, would follow the same policy toward Pakistan. And the policy will be that the United States is committed to a long-term relationship with Pakistan, we want to see a stable and a prosperous Pakistan. So I don't think our policy toward Pakistan will change very much," she said.

Even the most skeptical Pakistanis hope Obama will prove her wrong. Despite their skepticism, despite their deep distrust of the United States, Pakistanis still look to the American president to help guide their government.

They hope the man with a middle name they recognize, the man who declares with the lofty rhetoric that "the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth but from the enduring power of our ideals," they hope that man can change their country for the better.

As 31-year-old Amir Ali put it, speaking about American voters: "They have once again shown -- and proved -- that USA is the land of all possibilities. ? The new elected president of USA should consider respect and dignity of all other countries."