Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, Research Associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Yesterday, the International Republican Institute (IRI) released a poll (pdf) of Pakistani public attitudes. This poll was conducted in March, so two important caveats are in order when reading this poll. The first is that the survey was conducted at the height of the political conflict between President Asif Ali Zardari and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif over the reinstatement of Pakistani Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The second is that it was also conducted well prior to the breakdown of the deal between the Swat valley militants and the government in recent weeks.
That said, the poll results are striking. Economic issues are at the top of Pakistani concerns, with 46 percent considering inflation the country’s top priority and another 22 percent saying unemployment is the most important issue. Only 10 percent said terrorism was Pakistan’s most important problem, just above the 9 percent who consider poverty more important.
While placing it on the back burner compared with economic issues, Pakistanis on the whole appear to be of two minds about terrorism and extremism. Pakistanis who agree that “religious extremism is a serious problem in Pakistan” hit 74 percent, equaling the highest total since June 2007. A new high of 69 percent agree that “the Taliban and al Qaeda operating in Pakistan is a serious problem.” At the same time, Pakistanis disapprove of military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Northwest Frontier Province by seven points, and 72 percent disapprove of U.S. military “incursions” into the tribal areas.
Worse, 61 percent think that Pakistan shouldn’t cooperate with the United States in the “war on terror” -– though this figure is down dramatically from 89 percent in January 2008. Further, 72 percent supported a peace deal with extremists -– up from the previous two soundings -– and fully 80 percent supported the Swat deal, with 74 percent believing it would have brought peace to the region. Most worryingly, 56 percent of Pakistanis said they would support a Taliban demand for sharia (Islamic law) in urban centers like Lahore, Karachi, and Quetta.
Denial is rampant when it comes to terrorist organizations plotting in Pakistan. While 79 percent of Pakistanis say that it is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem if Lashkar-e-Taiba, al Qaeda, or other terrorist groups use Pakistan as base from which to attack India, a similar number –- 78 percent –- denied that LeT was behind the attacks. By contrast, 42 percent say India’s intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing, conducted the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks and 20 percent believe the United States was behind them. Combined with those who don’t know, 95 percent of Pakistanis either abstained from answering or blamed the Mumbai attacks on traditional boogeymen.
These results suggest two main points. First, the effort to assist Pakistan’s economy through the Kerry-Lugar program of $7.5 billion in civilian aid over the next five years is on the right track. Average Pakistanis are concerned about their economic well-being, and the United States can attempt to win their support by improving the lot of the average Pakistani. While Kerry-Lugar is entirely too small to upgrade the economic status of every Pakistani, it remains a good first step toward the United States addressing Pakistanis’ real concerns.
Second, Pakistan remains in denial of its own role in the political-security problems in the region. The fact that a majority of Pakistanis would support Taliban demands for religious law in major urban centers while even more agree that religious extremism is a major problem in the country indicates either profound cognitive dissonance in the population or a lack of awareness of what Taliban religious law actually is. Denial is even more obvious when it comes to Lashkar-e-Taiba, with Pakistanis admitting that it would be a major problem if they were conducting anti-India attacks from Pakistan but resolutely denying that they actually are conducting such attacks –- blaming them instead on the traditional enemy, India, and the United States.
While attitudes have probably changed since the collapse of the Swat deal -– particularly in regard to desirability of Taliban demands and backing of military operations in NWFP –- there isn’t much the United States can do on its own to deflate the pervasive sense of siege, geopolitical paranoia, and denial among the Pakistani public. Doing so requires an internal shift in priorities by the Pakistani elite and population that we may be seeing the beginnings of with the collapse of the Swat deal. But only time will tell.