WASHINGTON, (IPS/GIN) – Most Pakistanis consider the U.S. military presence in Asia and Afghanistan to be a more critical threat to their country than al-Qaida or Pakistan’s own Taliban movement, according to a survey released Jan 1.
The results of the poll suggest that the vast majority of Pakistanis would oppose the aggressive covert actions that the administration of President George W. Bush is reportedly thinking of taking against armed Islamist forces in western Pakistan.
The survey was funded by the quasi-governmental U.S. Institute of Peace and designed by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes.
Only 5 percent of respondents said the Pakistani government should permit U.S. or other foreign troops to enter Pakistan to pursue or capture al-Qaida fighters, compared to a whopping 80 percent who said such actions should not be permitted, according to the poll, which was based on in-depth interviews of more than 900 Pakistanis in 19 cities in mid-September.
As a result, the survey did not take account of the tumultuous events that have taken place in Pakistan since then, including the six-week state of emergency declared by President Pervez Musharraf, the sacking of the Supreme Court, the return from exile of former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, and Bhutto’s Dec. 27 assassination, which has led to the delay of scheduled parliamentary elections from Jan. 8 until next month.
To what extent those events may have influenced public opinion in Pakistan on the range of issues covered by the survey–particularly toward the Pakistani Taliban, one of whose leaders, Baitullah Mehsud, has been accused by the government of carrying out Bhutto’s killing–cannot be known.
But the underlying attitudes revealed in the poll, especially toward the U.S., can offer very little comfort to the administration, which has become increasingly alarmed about recent events in Pakistan–particularly Bhutto’s death, the Pakistani army’s reluctance to take on the Taliban, and intelligence reports that al-Qaida and its local allies, including the Taliban, have intensified their efforts to destabilize the government.
On Jan. 6, the New York Times ran a front-page article regarding a White House meeting on Jan. 4 in which top officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, reportedly debated pressing Musharraf and his new military leadership to permit the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. Special Operations Forces to carry out more aggressive covert operations against selected targets in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the quasi-autonomous tribal areas that have come become increasingly dominated by the Pakistani Taliban who have more recently extended their influence into the Northwest Frontier Province. The U.S. currently has about 50 soldiers in Pakistan acting primarily in an advisory and intelligence capacity.
While some administration officials reportedly believe that recent events have persuaded Musharraf and the army that they need such assistance to curb the growing threat from the Taliban and al-Qaida, regional specialists both in and outside the administration have argued that such an intervention risked further destabilizing the country by triggering what the Times has called “a tremendous backlash” against the U.S. and any government that is seen as its accomplice.
Despite the nearly four-month hiatus since the survey was conducted by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Program on International Policy Attitudes, the findings would certainly appear to support the latter prediction.
While the survey found that a large majority of Pakistanis hold negative views of radical Islamists, including the Taliban and al-Qaida, and strongly reject their use of violence against civilians, their views of the United States and its intentions toward Pakistan appear to be considerably more hostile and distrustful.
A whopping 84 percent said the U.S. military presence in the region was either a “critical” (72 percent) or an “important” (12 percent) threat to Pakistan’s “vital interests.”
By comparison, 53 percent of respondents said they believed tensions with India–with which Pakistan has fought several wars –constituted a “critical threat.” Roughly 41 percent named al-Qaida as a “critical threat,” and 34 percent put “activities of Islamist militants and local Taliban” in the same category.
Asked to choose from a list of alleged U.S. goals in the region, 78 percent said Washington is seeking “to maintain control over the oil resources of the Middle East” (59 percent said it was “definitely” a goal, whereas 19 percent said “probably”). About 75 percent said the U.S. is seeking “to spread Christianity,” and 86 percent said the U.S. is seeking “to weaken and divide the Islamic world.” Only 63 percent chose the option “to prevent more attacks such as those on the World Trade Center in September 2001.”
Moreover, a majority of respondents said they believed that the U.S. controls either “most” or “nearly all” of the recent major events that have taken place in Pakistan, compared to 22 percent who attributed “some” control to the U.S. and 4 percent who said “very little.” Eighteen percent declined to respond.
As to Pakistan-U.S. security cooperation, less than one in five respondents said it had either benefited Pakistan primarily or both equally. Forty-four percent said it had mostly benefited the U.S.; and 11 percent said neither party had benefited.
Distrust of the U.S., however, did not translate into support for radical Islamists, the Taliban, or al-Qaida, according to the survey. While they were considered much less of a threat than the U.S., six out of 10 respondents said they considered the Taliban and al-Qaida either a ‘critical’ or an ‘important’ threat to Pakistan.
Even as huge majorities opposed any U.S. or foreign military intervention against the two groups in Pakistan, pluralities approaching 50 percent said they would support the Pakistani army entering the FATA to capture al-Qaida fighters or to capture Taliban insurgents who have crossed over from Afghanistan.
Comparable pluralities said they favored phasing out FATA’s special legal status and integrating its areas into the country’s overall legal structure, while advocating a gradualist approach that includes negotiating with the local Taliban over using military force to impose the central government’s control.
The survey also found overwhelming support for government based both on “Islamic principles” and on democratic ideals, including an independent judiciary and being governed by elected representatives. While six in 10 respondents said they supported a larger role for Islamic law, or Shariah, in Pakistan’s legal system, only 15 percent said they wanted to see more “Talibanization of daily life,” a common phrase used in Pakistani media to refer to extreme religious conservatism.
Indeed, more than eight in 10 said it was important for Pakistan to protect its religious minorities; more than three out of four said attacks on those minorities are “never justified”; and nearly two out of three said they support government plans to regulate religious schools, or madrassas, and to require them to teach secular subjects such as math and science. Only 17 percent said they oppose those reforms.
In general, those respondents who supported the expansion of Shariah and government based on “Islamic principles” also tended to favor both democratic ideals and educational reforms at higher rates than others.