A new poll taken of Pakistani voters shows significant changes in attitudes on fighting terrorism and reconciliation with extremists — and some bad news for prospects of cooperation with Americans. The International Republican Institute conducted its semiannual survey among 4900 Pakistani adults using in-home interviews, giving this a fairly reliable sample on public opinion. The good news is that Pakistanis are now much less supportive of reconciliation efforts with extremists who have routinely violated past treaties. Bad news? American efforts to fight terrorism are less popular than ever.
One of the prime drivers of both trends is the collapse of security in Pakistan. Sixty-nine percent of respondents feel less secure than a year ago, up from 60% in March. Oddly, though, terrorism is only a distant third on the list of most important issues facing Pakistanis, at 13%. Inflation (40%) and unemployment (20%) far eclipse terrorism, which indicates that many in Pakistan do not see it as an existential threat.
Still, 90% see religious extremism as a “serious problem,” up from 74% in March, the previous high. Having the Taliban and al-Qaeda operating in the country is seen a serious problem by 86%, up from 69% in March and just 45% in June 2008. Pakistanis support their own military operating in tribal areas by a 69%-28% split, but support for American efforts in these regions — always anemic — has decreased from 24% in March to 20% now.
Far more worrisome is the question of cooperation in general. In March, Pakistanis opposed cooperating with the US by a wide margin, 61%-37% — and that was the best number Americans got since February 2007. Now, the split is 80%-18%, an overwhelming majority and a very bad trend. It appears from the polling that Pakistanis expected a change from the new Barack Obama administration — and when the drone attacks continued, the backlash was swift and significant.
Now, the good news: Pakistanis have become disenchanted with peace deals. For the first time in the survey, a majority opposes peace deals with extremists, 50%-46%. In March, Pakistanis supported the notion by a wide majority, 72%-22%. The betrayal in Swat has probably convinced Pakistanis that religious extremists cannot be trusted to abide by these truces, and that appeasement only encourages them to get more aggressive. That has significant political implications in Pakistan, where some parties have acted as either fronts for or sympathetic ears to religious extremists.
What does all of this mean for US policy? If we intend to stay aggressive, we will not be popular in Pakistan. However, it does not appear that our unpopularity is creating an boon for extremists; in fact, they’re less popular than ever. We should continue to pursue our own goals in eradicating AQ but make sure that the Pakistani government has an arm’s length from our operations.