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Afghanistan: Media Center In Pakistan Hopes To Counter Taliban Propaganda

The U.S.-led coalition is fighting a war on two fronts, in its bid to defeat what remains of Afghanistan's Taliban regime and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. First, there is the war on the battlefield, but equally important is the war to win over skeptical hearts and minds, mostly across the Muslim world and especially in neighboring Pakistan. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports from Islamabad.

Islamabad, 26 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- For a country that invented public relations almost a century ago, it is hard to believe the United States has been so slow to get its message out to the people of Pakistan and the surrounding region on the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan.

But until last week, the biggest media event in Pakistan's capital was the daily afternoon briefing by the Taliban ambassador. That is, until the Pakistani government asked the Taliban to close their embassy and the United States and Britain belatedly opened what is being called the Coalition Information Service.

Retired U.S. ambassador Kenton Keith has arrived in Islamabad to head the operation. Keith and his staff of eight aim to recapture the initiative in the public relations battle. They are planning to hold daily briefings and other activities designed to make the Coalition Information Service an authoritative source of information on the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan.

As U.S. diplomats tell it, the time difference between this region and the United States means that each day the Taliban is able to air their message first. The State Department in Washington is then invariably forced to refute the statements hours later. Again, because of the time difference, Washington's version of events rarely makes it into the next day's Pakistani morning papers. The Taliban ambassador in effect sets the news agenda.

Keith tells RFE/RL this is one of the main reasons which prompted the United States and Britain to open the center.

"The fact is that Islamabad is 10 hours ahead of Washington and it was discovered that a lot of the accusations and misinformation that were coming from representatives of the Taliban were simply being allowed to circulate and sink in for 10 hours before there was a response. It was decided to try to do something about that and that was the genesis of the coalition center here in Islamabad."

A highlight of the Coalition Information Service's first week in operation was the 23 November visit to Islamabad by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who stopped by the center to deliver a briefing that was well-attended by foreign and local journalists. Keith says he has already detected a change in the local media's coverage since the information service opened.

"There has been wide coverage of the conferences we've had. We've had three press conferences this week of the coalition. We just had British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw here. We will brief over the weekend anytime that is necessary and we will take our normal briefing time on Monday afternoon."

Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema heads the Islamabad Policy Research Institute, one of the Pakistani capital's leading think-tanks, which has close ties to the government. He tells RFE/RL that so far, he has not seen the information service's work being reflected greatly in the local media. But he acknowledges that it is early yet and he welcomes the fact that Washington has finally understood the need for better public relations. He wonders why it took America more than a month to take into account such factors as the time difference and says Washington should have known from the outset it would be fighting an uphill battle in winning local sympathies.

"I think the Americans should have started much earlier. The reason is that there's a general perception that the Americans in the past have let [us] down. I mean, there are good reasons that the perception exists."

Although the United States has for years been a major donor to Pakistan while also providing some 80 percent of Afghanistan's humanitarian aid, most Pakistanis blame the United States for allowing Afghanistan to descend into chaos after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The resulting instability meant the more than 2 million Afghan refugees who had sought refuge in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation never returned home. Cheema says:

"Soon after the Soviet pullout, the Americans were looking for ways and means to get themselves disentangled from the commitment. They left a large number of refugees here with Pakistan and they left Afghanistan a mess. There was no effort to see that some kind of a government be established, you know. So the result was that Afghanistan plunged into instability and internal infighting and civil war started later on. There is a large perception that they [the Americans] are not trustworthy."

Cheema says America also suffers from a broader image problem in the Muslim world due to some of its foreign policy choices, especially in the Middle East. In addition, Pakistan has its own special reason for feeling aggrieved. Fairly or not, it sees Washington's refusal to mediate in the divided Kashmir region -- which has been a bone of contention in Islamabad's relations with neighboring India for more than five decades -- as evidence of Washington's locally perceived pro-India bias.

The United States counters that it cannot mediate in a dispute if one of the parties, namely India, refuses outside intervention. But this continues to be a sore point in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. This in turn is exploited by radical political parties who, with some success, paint the U.S. administration's war on terrorism as a war against Muslims.

Perhaps most important is the issue of money. Pakistanis, in return for their president's strong support of the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, expect more than words from the Coalition Information Service. The U.S. administration has already lifted sanctions against Islamabad, imposed in the wake of Pakistan's nuclear tests and last month it proposed a new aid package worth $1 billion.

Cheema says that in the public perception, the payoff most people expect from Washington is debt relief.

Pakistan currently labors under some $38 billion in external debt, $4 billion of which is owed directly to the United States and could, in principle, be forgiven. Cheema says that the average man-on-the-street sees debt relief as the major action which Washington can undertake to demonstrate its commitment and gratitude to Pakistan.

"He (a typical person) doesn't understand the meaning of market access. He says: 'Why haven't they written off the debts?' The reason being is that for the last 10 years, the Pakistani economy has been pretty weak and regime after regime which has ruled Pakistan was more or less unable to introduce a healthy injection into the weakening economy of Pakistan. So everybody exploited, or let's say drummed in, this notion that it's because of the debts that we have these problems. And you know, a large portion of our own earnings goes to servicing our debt. That's why the ordinary man on the street knows little else but about the debt."

The newly established Coalition Information Service has neither the mandate nor the capability to soothe the many irritants in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. But Cheema says the diplomats staffing the center must become aware of the complexity of the bilateral relationship and the need to nurture it and Pakistani public opinion with great attention and care.

Given the security climate and the fact the Coalition Information Service is headquartered inside Islamabad's American Cultural Center, which has been closed to the public since 11 September, it may not prove easy to remove public suspicions about America's motives and actions.