Struggling to overcome growing concern about the course of the war in Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday she detected a subtle but favorable shift in public opinion in key ally Pakistan as she pressed Afghan leaders on reform and security improvements.
Arriving in Kabul to attend an international conference on Afghanistan after two days of talks in Islamabad, Clinton said she would urge Afghan President Hamid Karzai to follow through with pledges to improve governance and fight corruption. But she stressed that the U.S. and its partners had to police themselves in those areas too.
Aboard her plane from Pakistan, Clinton said U.S. efforts to convince deeply skeptical Pakistanis that American interest in their country extends beyond the fight against Islamist militants appeared to be gaining ground. To boost that shift, she announced a raft of new aid projects worth $500 million in Islamabad.
The projects, which include hospitals and new dams for badly needed electricity, are part of a $7.5 billion aid effort to win over Pakistanis suspicious about Washington's goals there and in neighboring Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are being killed in ever greater numbers in an insurgency with roots in Pakistan.
Mistrust over U.S. intentions in Pakistan is in part due to Washington's decision to turn away from the nuclear-armed country after enlisting its support to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
"Of course there is a legacy of suspicion that we inherited," she told reporters in Islamabad. "It is not going to be eliminated overnight."
But after a town hall meeting with Pakistani students, academics and businesspeople, Clinton said she noticed a slight change in opinion from a her last trip to Pakistan in October when she was hit by a barrage of intense and hostile questions at a similar event. She said Pakistani officials she had spoken with had noticed it, too.
"I don't want to overstate this but (the Pakistani officials) all said we really believe that the people are understanding that the United States wants to be a real partner to us and that it's not just killing terrorists," she told reporters traveling with her to an international conference in Afghanistan.
"I happen to think one of the best ways to kill terrorists is by being a good partner and by creating an atmosphere in which people have trust and confidence that what you're doing is in their best interests as well," she said. "Therefore, they are prepared to support their own government in those efforts. I could feel a change."
As she flew to Afghanistan, Clinton said the Kabul Conference -- the largest hosted by the country in decades that is to be attended by senior officials from 60 countries -- "is going to show more Afghan ownership and leadership, which is something we've been pushing."
She said she is concerned about reports of diversions of U.S. aid, but said the problem isn't just with the Afghan government. She noted that recent reports of U.S. contractors paying protection money to militants have prompted concern in Congress and led one lawmaker to put a hold on about $4 billion in assistance to Afghanistan.
"We also have to take our hard look at ourselves because it is very clear our presence, all of our contracting, has fed that problem," she said. "This is not just an Afghan problem, it's an international issue. We have to do a better job of trying to more carefully channel and monitor our own aid."
Before meeting Karzai on the eve of the conference, Clinton said the U.S. is "pressing the Afghan government at all levels to be more accountable, to go after corruption," but that the U.S. also had a responsibility to improve management of its programs.
With anxiety rising about President Barack Obama's plan to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan next year, Clinton also warned Afghan officials against trying to make peace with Taliban, al-Qaida and other militants considered irreconcilable. Those re-entering society must lay down their arms and accept Afghanistan's constitution, she said.
"We would strongly advise our friends in Afghanistan to deal with those who are committed to a peaceful future where their ideas can compete in the political arena through the ballot box, not through the force of arms," Clinton said in Islamabad.
Many analysts believe Pakistan is reluctant to target Afghan Taliban militants in the country with whom it has historical ties because they could be useful allies in Afghanistan after international forces withdraw.
Pakistan has shown more interest in supporting Afghanistan's push to reconcile with Afghan Taliban rather than fight them, a tactic the U.S. believes has little chance of succeeding until the militants' momentum on the battlefield is reversed.