As Pakistan’s anti-terrorism court begins the long process of trying five suspects in last November’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, it’s worth revisiting the triangular relationship between the Pakistani public, the government and militant groups that will determine whether or not the militants can be defeated. For once, there’s some good news: the Pakistani public, while remaining overwhelmingly anti-American, has turned decisively against militants.
Eighty-one percent of Pakistanis now see “Islamist militants and Taliban in FATA and settled areas” as a “critical threat,” while 67 percent view the “activities of religious militants in Pakistan as a whole” as a similarly critical threat. There is little support for Taliban governance – the government leads the Taliban by forty points in providing “effective and timely justice,” “preventing corruption,” and “helping the poor.” Significantly, in each case double digits say that both or neither will do better job, and the government only scores above 50 points in the justice category. These results indicate that while there’s little appetite for Taliban rule and general confidence in the government, the latter is weak and has much room to grow.
Al Qaeda, as distinct from Pakistani militants, is also seen as a critical threat. Eighty-two percent of Pakistanis now view al Qaeda as such, double from 41 percent in September 2007. But while 88 percent think al Qaeda should not be allowed to operate training camps in Pakistan and 74 percent thinks the government should use military force to close the camps if necessary, only 12 percent actually think there are al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan. Moreover, while 62 percent of Pakistanis oppose al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States, 59 percent say they “share many of its attitudes toward the U.S.” What’s perhaps most disturbing is that a quarter of Pakistanis share both al Qaeda’s attitudes and approval of its methods – a significant reservoir of support in a critical country.
Part of these results can no doubt be explained by the Pakistani military’s long-standing cultivation of and support for militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, the chief organizational suspect behind the Mumbai attacks. Pakistan’s notoriously unreliable and self-serving Inter-Services Intelligence agency leaked today that membership in LeT is about 150,000 people and that its members “were good people” who could be controlled. While there’s still uncertainty as to the actual relationship of LeT to the military, the fact that someone in ISI (described as a “midlevel officer”) still talks about controlling the group indicates that the culture of militant support within the Pakistani military may be far harder to uproot than the militants themselves.
After steamrolling through Swat with artillery and airstrikes (creating 2 million refugees in the process), the Pakistani military has put offensive operations in the tribal regions on hold. As one local politician with the largely secular Awami National Party put it, “It’s an insane dream to expect anything different from the Pakistani government… The Taliban are the brainchildren of the Pakistan army for the last 30 years. They are their own people.”
For years the Pakistani military has been playing a double game with the United States -– supporting its favorite militants, giving up those that posed too much of a problem, and taking money from the United States in the process. Now it’s embarking on a double game with its own population, a population that now supports overwhelmingly operations against militant groups that have begun targeting Pakistan itself.