Pakistan’s Suspicious Public

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Pakistan’s Suspicious Public

A series of militant attacks over the last week have sparked widespread anger in Pakistan. Suicide bombers killed 62 people at government offices in the tribal agency of Mohmand today, and last Friday, over 40 worshippers died in an extremist attack on the shrine of Hazrat Data Ganj Baksh, the country’s most important Sufi place of worship.  In Pakistan, however, much of this outrage has been directed at Washington and Islamabad rather than at the terrorists.

“America is killing Muslims in Afghanistan and in our tribal areas [using drone attacks],” argued one Pakistani interviewed in the aftermath of the attack, explaining why the United States is ultimately to blame for the bombing. “[M]ilitants are attacking Pakistan to express anger against the government for supporting America.” Similar sentiments have circulated widely on Pakistan’s hugely influential private TV networks.

To understand this reaction, it is necessary to grasp the complexity of the domestic Pakistani debate about militancy. The good news is that, over the last 12 months, ordinary Pakistanis have decisively turned against the Taliban’s religious agenda. The bad news is that Pakistanis have simultaneously become even more anti-American — which in turn is distorting their perception of counterinsurgency.

Pakistani perceptions of the Taliban’s religious program have shifted from tacit acceptance to revulsion. For a long time, the Taliban argued that they simply wanted to make the country more pious. Until 2009, most Pakistanis saw nothing wrong with that declared intention and largely opposed military operations against militant havens in northwestern Pakistan. Last year, 80 percent of Pakistanis approved of Islamabad’s February 2009 truce with the Taliban, which ratified jihadi control over large areas of the North-West Frontier Province.

But after the brutality of the Taliban’s “Islamic” rule became self-evident, Pakistani perceptions changed. Last October, Islamabad, acting with broad public support, launched a major offensive against Taliban bases in South Waziristan. It has since followed that up with other operations in the tribal areas — for example, the Army is currently fighting in Orakzai.

Today, public approval of the Taliban has all but collapsed. According to polling conducted by Gallup last December, no more than 5 percent of the population in any of the country’s four provinces believes that the Taliban has a positive influence on their lives, including a meager 1 percent in the North-West Frontier Province.

But these heartening developments have been accompanied by a contrary and troubling trend: the hardening of anti-American sentiment among ordinary Pakistanis. Of 28 countries polled by the Program on International Policy Attitudes for the BBC World Service in April, Pakistan was one of only two countries where a majority of the public held negative views of the United States. And in another Gallup survey, when asked to identify the biggest threat to their country, 59 percent of Pakistanis identified the United States, while only 11 percent named the Taliban.

Pakistani disenchantment with the United States has skewed public discourse about extremism. When Washington urges Islamabad to fight militancy, distrustful Pakistanis question whether counterinsurgency is really in their own national interests. When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured Pakistan in a series of town-hall meetings last November, one of her talking points was that Washington and Islamabad were fighting a common terrorist enemy. But many Pakistanis rejected this contention. As one journalist told Clinton, “We are fighting a war that is imposed on us. It’s not our war. It is your war.”

At first glance, the stubbornness of anti-American sentiment in Pakistan can seem difficult to understand. After all, President Barack Obama’s administration has made significant policy shifts in response to enduring Pakistani grievances with past U.S. administrations. For example, the United States is currently bolstering democracy by moving beyond an exclusive partnership with the Pakistani military and deepening relations with civilian political parties. Moreover, Washington has allocated unprecedented dollars for a wide array of development and infrastructure programs, including vital projects in the energy and water sectors.

But many of these laudable measures — necessarily focused on long-term issues — have yet to show tangible benefits. By contrast, Pakistanis are perpetually confronted by the coercive elements of U.S. power. Constant media reports on drone strikes, the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the operation of private mercenary agencies and spy networks in Pakistan fortify a decades-long narrative of the United States as hostile and anti-Muslim. Much of the media’s reflexive demagoguery is made worse by credible reports of the local presence of organizations such as the security firm formerly known as Blackwater — reviled throughout the Muslim world.

Some might argue that rising anti-Americanism in Pakistan is insignificant as long as the United States maintains strong ties to officials in Islamabad and can convince them to expand military operations against militants. But Pakistani suspicion of the United States is the Taliban’s last remaining trump card: If it is allowed to fester, the insurgency might regain the public’s indulgence.

These opinions have broad currency in part because Pakistan’s political leaders have yet to craft a compelling counterterrorism narrative. Even worse, some mainstream Pakistani politicians have internalized the assumptions of Taliban propaganda. Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab and one of the most powerful politicians in the country, declared in March that the Taliban should refrain from terrorism in Punjab because his political party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), had also “rejected dictation from abroad” — implying the two groups shared a common purpose against the United States.

Instead of allowing extremists to frame the domestic debate, Pakistan’s leaders should foster a vigorous discussion that honestly confronts the jihadi Frankenstein. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s call to bring together all major political parties for a national conference on extremism in the aftermath of the Data Ganj Baksh attack is a long-overdue step in the right direction. For its part, the United States should consider whether some aspects of its counterterrorism campaign — such as the use of companies like Blackwater — have more costs than benefits in terms of public perception. And both Washington and Islamabad need to collectively generate a narrative in which the two countries are seen to work in concert rather than in opposition. Otherwise, anti-American sentiment in Pakistan will function as a protective shield for extremists for a long time to come.

Ahmed Humayun is Senior Analyst at Georgetown University’s Emerging Threats Project and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). 

This article was published by Foreign Policy Magazine on July 9, 2010:


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