America’s plans for a major expansion of its diplomatic presence in Pakistan, including the possible takeover of a bombed luxury hotel near the Taliban heartland, have heightened tensions and bred rumors in a population rife with anti-U.S. sentiment.
Among the tales being floated: that 1,000 U.S. Marines will land in the capital, that Americans will set up a Guantanamo-style prison and that the infamous security contractor once called Blackwater will come in and wreak havoc.
The frenzy, much of it whipped up by the media and Islamist political parties, shows the difficulties for the U.S. as it seeks to increase its engagement in a country where a flourishing militant movement is threatening the war effort in neighboring Afghanistan.
The U.S. says it needs to expand mainly to disburse billions of dollars more in aid to Pakistan, an impoverished nation of 175 million people.
Pakistanis tend to view U.S. motives with suspicion, pointing to a history of American support for the country’s past military rulers and involvement in its internal affairs, which they say has stunted the economy and democratic aspirations.
Others believe the U.S. is out to end Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, a source of domestic pride.
“Even an illiterate person knows that the Americans are against our nuclear program, and they will not miss any opportunity to destroy” the nuclear facilities, said Humayoun Qaiser, 23, a student at an Islamic university in Islamabad.
In recent weeks, several newspapers have published unconfirmed reports that 1,000 U.S. Marines will be posted at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad _ which would be a significant jump from the nine there now. U.S. officials say at most the number may reach 20. Marine security guards are routine at U.S. missions abroad.
The head of the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami recently claimed that the U.S. has plans to build a Guantanamo-like prison in Pakistan, according to a newspaper report. The U.S. denies the claim.
Rumors aside, the embassy does plan to reconstruct the buildings on its 38-acre (15-hectare) compound and acquire an additional 18 acres (7 hectares), much of which will be used for apartments, embassy spokesman Richard Snelsire said.
About 1,450 employees work for the embassy: 1,000 Pakistanis, 250 Americans posted to the site and another 200 Americans on short-term assignments. The plan is to add around 400 people, including about 200 more posted U.S. staffers, Snelsire said.
The major reason for the growth is a proposal in Congress to triple nonmilitary aid to Pakistan, he said.
The legislation would provide $1.5 billion a year over five years in humanitarian and economic aid. The goal is to improve education and other areas, thereby lessening the allure of extremism.
“There are Congressional demands for oversight of where that money is spent,” Snelsire said, explaining the need for more personnel.
There are more modest expansion plans for consulates, including the one in Peshawar, the main city in the militant-riddled northwest. The State Department is searching for a new site for that consulate, long believed to be a key hub for American spies.
One possible location is the city’s top hotel, the Pearl Continental, two senior U.S. officials confirmed in June, soon after the hotel was bombed. Taking such prime property, though, could provoke resentment.
Snelsire would not discuss which sites were under review.
He said the expansion would happen over five to seven years and stressed that many of the current facilities are old, decrepit or small.
Much of the negative press is being fueled by Islamist and other political parties who want to bring pressure on the government by portraying it as an American lackey, said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst.
He criticized the government’s response.
“The government is showing a lot of ineptitude,” he said. “They should not create the impression that they are helpless and they cannot tell the real story.”
The United States has tried to stem the bad publicity by writing letters to newspapers and holding briefings for the Pakistani media, but rumors persist.
“There is a lot of, frankly, just misinformation out there, and it keeps getting published just over and over by a few journalists,” Snelsire said.
One recent Internet account alleged the U.S. was bringing in private security contractors such as the company formerly known as Blackwater. Now called Xe Services, the firm’s reputation was severely tarnished by reports of unprovoked killings in Iraq.
The blogger who wrote the account called Blackwater “the private U.S. mercenary army” and said that reports of “ill-mannered military-type Westerners misbehaving” was evidence the company was setting up in Pakistan.
Xe Services did not immediately respond to an e-mail request for comment. Snelsire would not discuss what kind of contractors the U.S. uses in Pakistan or whether it plans to add to those ranks.