Pakistan Warily Watches Obama Policies

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President Barack Obama's arrival in office is being closely watched in Pakistan. Although they were allies in the war on terrorism, the two countries had a difficult relationship during the Bush years. People on the streets of Pakistan respond to the Obama administration.


From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. President Barack Obama struck a conciliatory note toward Muslims around the world in his inaugural speech. Mr. Obama said we seek a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect.

Will that message be heeded? Pakistan has been a key ally of the U.S. in the war against Islamist militants, but anti-American sentiment among people in that country has been growing. NPR's Philip Reeves has just visited Pakistan, and he sent us this report about how people view America's new leader. His story begins in a taxi cab.

(Soundbite of taxi ride)

Mr. ASSIF HUSSEIN SHA(ph) (Taxi Driver): It's OK. It's OK and the glass is broken so that why (laughter).

PHILIP REEVES: No worries.

Mr. SHA: So we move now?


REEVES: Assif Hussein Sha has driven the same taxi for 22 years. Like most of the world's cab drivers, he holds an opinion about many subjects, including Barack Obama.

Mr. SHA: It's not change for only the American, it's also change for the world. And especially will Pakistani also looking towards Obama because America is a superpower so he have a role to pave the world in a peaceful way.

REEVES: These are difficult times for Pakistanis - their democratically elected government is weak, their economy is in a mess, the Taliban controls parts of their country. Sha is concerned. In fact, he's so concerned, he's just published a book, a kind of taxi driver's guide to coping with such problems including violent Islamist militancy.

Mr. SHA: I think the best way is to talk. War is no solution. The best way is to talk with broad mind and with broad heart.

REEVES: Open heart?

Mr. SHA: Open heart, exactly. I'm sorry. I can't speak good English (laughing).

REEVES: Sha has had enough of conflict. So have many of his countrymen. In less than two years, many hundreds of Pakistanis have been killed by suicide bombers. The victims include Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister. She died in Rawalpindi, near the capital Islamabad, just over one year ago. That's where we're going now. At the makeshift shrine marking the place of Bhutto's assassination, Kamrin Haider(ph), a mechanical engineer, has come to pay his respects.

Mr. KAMRIN HAIDER (Mechanical Engineer): (Through Translator) We are not concerned either with Obama or Bush. Whoever rules in America, they are definitely going to harm and damage Pakistan.

REEVES: Not far away, there's a group of men with shovels and pick axes. If you haven't got a job in Pakistan, and you're male, and you're willing to do almost anything, this is where you come. There's a group of men here sitting beside the road, waiting for someone to come along and hire them.

Now, many of these men are from the tribal belt in Pakistan. That's in the middle of the conflict between the Pakistani army, backed by the U.S., and the Taliban. They are wearing the traditional clothing of that area, baggy trousers, baggy shirts, skull caps.

The weather-beaten bearded tribesmen cluster round, eager to talk. The U.S. has paid Pakistan billions of dollars in military aid since 9/11. Pakistan's rounded up hundreds of al-Qaida suspects, some of whom ended up in Guantanamo Bay.

But today, these men want to talk about the U.S. strategy of firing missiles from unmanned drones at suspected militant targets in Pakistan's tribal belt. A laborer called Watam Kan(ph) is chosen to speak on the men's behalf.

Mr. WATAM KAN: (Through Translator) We tribal people actually are very much concerned about the American drone attacks because they are attacking the civilians and women and children are being killed.

REEVES: Kan says if President Obama wants to win the support of Pakistan's tribesmen in driving out the Taliban, the missiles need to stop.

Mr. KAN: (Through Translator) Once he stops his attacks, then we will say, OK, Obama is a good president for us.

REEVES: We head back to Islamabad in Sha's taxi. Soon, we're outside the Marriott Hotel. Four months ago, 56 people died when the hotel was attacked by a suicide truck bomb.

Mr. ZULFIQAR MALIK (General Manager, Islamabad Marriott Hotel): My name is Zulfiqar Malik, and I am the general manager of Islamabad Marriott Hotel.

REEVES: Malik and his colleagues have firsthand experience of the horrors of the violence plighting Pakistan. He thinks Pakistanis are hopeful, though, that Barack Obama will make a difference.

Mr. MALIK: Yes, I mean people have a lot of expectation from Mr. Barack Obama. And what a common person expects of when Mr. Obama comes, not only will continue to fight against these people, but at the same time we are going to try to engage their hearts and minds.

REEVES: This is just a flicker of hope against the bleak landscape. But Assif Hussein Sha, the cab driver feels it, too, as he rattles around in his ancient taxi, planning his next book. Sha clings to the belief that Pakistan will eventually come right.

Mr. SHA: Normal life is hard in Pakistan, but I think if we play our role, everybody when he play his role, I think we can find the solution.

REEVES: Thank you very much.

Mr. SHA: Thank you sir. You are welcome. Thank you.

REEVES: Phillip Reeves, NPR News.

(Soundbite of taxi driving off)

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