WASHINGTON - Amid reports that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is considering aggressive covert actions against armed Islamist forces in western Pakistan, a new survey released here Monday suggested that such an effort would be opposed by an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis themselves.
The survey, which was funded by the quasi-governmental U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) and designed by the University of Maryland's Programme on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), also found that a strong majority of Pakistanis consider the U.S. military presence in Asia and neighbouring Afghanistan a much more critical threat to their country than al Qaeda or Pakistan's own Taliban movement in the tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan.
Only five percent of respondents said the Pakistani government should permit U.S. or other foreign troops to enter Pakistan to pursue or capture al Qaeda 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 little 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 Qaeda and its local allies, including the Taliban, have intensified their efforts to destabilise the government.
On Sunday, the New York Times ran a front-page article regarding a White House meeting Friday 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 (CIA) and U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) 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 Taliban-al Qaeda threat, regional specialists both in and outside the administration have argued that such an intervention risked further destabilising the country by triggering what the Times called "a tremendous backlash" against the U.S. and any government that was seen as its accomplice.
Despite the nearly four-month hiatus since the USIP-PIPA survey was conducted, its 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 Qaeda, 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"; 41 percent named al Qaeda as a "critical threat"; 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 cited Washington's alleged desire "to maintain control over the oil resources of the Middle East" (59 percent said it was "definitely" a goal, 19 percent said "probably"); 75 percent (53 percent "definitely") cited "to spread Christianity"; and 86 percent (70 percent "definitely") said it was "to weaken and divide the Islamic world". Only 63 percent (41 percent "definitely") chose the option "to prevent more attacks such as those on the World Trade Centre in September 2001."
Moreover, a majority of respondents said they believed that the U.S. controls either "most" (32 percent) or "nearly all" (24 percent) of the recent major events that have taken place in Pakistan, compared to 22 percent who attributed "some" control to the U.S. and four 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 Qaeda, 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 Qaeda either a "critical" or an "important" threat" to Pakistan.
And 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 Qaeda fighters or Taliban insurgents who have crossed over from Afghanistan.
Comparable pluralities said they favoured phasing out FATA's special legal status and integrating its areas into the country's overall legal structure, but also prefer taking 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 Shari'a, in Pakistan's legal system, only 15 percent said they wanted to see more "Talibanisation 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, 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 Shari'a and government based on "Islamic principles" also tended to favour both democratic ideals and educational reforms at higher rates than others.
© 2007 Inter Press Service