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Rare pro-US Sentiment in Pakistan

Ali Khan Afridi is a wanted man. Militants come to his house in this frontier city and menace his family. Men claiming to be from Pakistan's intelligence services call at 2 am and tell him to watch his back.

world Updated: Jun 26, 2011 00:34 IST

Ali Khan Afridi is a wanted man. Militants come to his house in this frontier city and menace his family. Men claiming to be from Pakistan's intelligence services call at 2 am and tell him to watch his back.

Afridi accepts all this as the price of his radical views: In a country where the vast majority of people believe the United States is an enemy, Afridi is unabashedly pro-American.

"I believe that America is the only power that can defeat these monsters, these terrorists," Afridi said. "And that means my life is in permanent danger."

The United States and Pakistan have been allies for decades, but it has rarely been easy to be pro-American here. Now, following last month's killing by US Navy Seals of Osama bin Laden, speaking out on behalf of the United States requires a degree of boldness that verges on a death wish.

While bin Laden was held in low regard by most Pakistanis and there have been few public displays of anger at his passing, the impact on attitudes toward the United States has been profound. Critics of Pakistani ties with Washington are ascendant on the streets, in the media and, crucially, at Pakistan's military headquarters in Rawalpindi. Backers of the relationship, the few who remain, have been cowed into silence or are reconsidering their stands.

"The US doesn't realise it, but the damage done is huge. This is a deep hurt that is not going to go away," said Riaz Khokar, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States who now advocates a dramatic downgrading of the relationship. "We have placed all our eggs in the U.S. basket. And the eggs turned out to be rotten."

"In this part of the world, public humiliation is a very serious matter. And the US has humiliated the armed forces of Pakistan," said Khokar, who has met recently with Pakistan's powerful top general, Ashfaq Kayani.

Perhaps no other Pakistani backer of the American alliance has come under more scrutiny or pressure than Kayani. The army chief had been tightly aligned with the United States, and had forged a particularly strong relationship with Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

But after May 2, Kayani "almost went into a state of shock. He could never imagine in his wildest dreams that after all the coordination with Mike, this would be the outcome," according to retired Major General Mahmud Ali Durrani, a former ambassador to the United States who is considered close to Kayani. In his public statements since the bin Laden raid, Kayani has frequently criticised the United States. He is facing pressure from his corps commanders to go beyond rhetoric and take a far tougher policy line, including forcing an end to the US campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal belt.

Advocates of downgrading the US relationship point to the estimated 35,000 Pakistanis who have been killed in extremist violence since Pakistan partnered with the United States following the Septembet 11, 2001 attacks. The billions of dollars in aid supplied by Washington, they say, hardly compensate for the economic devastation wrought by a war with militants that has never been accepted as Pakistan's own. "People have not owned this war. They say it is the war of the US that has been imposed on us," said Shaheed Soherwordi, an international relations professor at Peshawar University.

Soherwordi spoke from a desk in the Lincoln Corner, a section of the university library co-sponsored by the US government. It is one of the few places in the city that is openly associated with the United States. Another, the American consulate, is considered such a prime target for attack that Soherwordi recently pulled his daughter from a school that he felt was situated too close to the compound.

"Every thing and every person associated with the US is a target," Soherwordi said. That includes Afridi, who leads a consortium of non-governmental groups operating in the neighbouring tribal areas.

Afridi, 36 and clean-shaven, insists he does not have a death wish, but is well aware of the risks of speaking out so strongly in favour of the United States.

The real threat to his native tribal lands is not the United States, he said, but the Arab, Chechen and Uzbek extremists who have moved in and taken over. "There are millions like me," Afridi said. "But they are terrified. And they are silent."

(In Exclusive Partnership with The Washington Post)