Terrorist attacks in Pakistan stir anger at U.S.

Nineteen percent of Pakistanis have 'positive' views toward Al Qaeda, according to a BBC poll released Sunday.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

For Jamil Asghar, owner of the Bata Shoe Store in Saddar Market, preparations for this year's Eid-al-Fitr celebrations are being marred by an ever-present sense of danger.

"Look around you," he says, surveying the crowded middle-class bazaar. "If a bomb went off here, where these innocent people are standing, can you imagine how bad it would be?"

Though unequivocal in his view that terrorists are kaffirs (unbelievers), Asghar also has no doubt where the root cause of the recent increase in suicide bombings and other deadly attacks lies: the United States and its military incursions into Pakistan's tribal zones.

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In living rooms, tea shops, and TV studios, a debate is raging in the wake of last week's Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing between those who see terrorist acts in Pakistan's towns and cities as "reactive measures" for cross-border strikes by the US into Pakistan's tribal areas and those who believe militants must be strongly condemned for their actions.

"The killing of innocents is forbidden in Islam. Both the Taliban and the Americans are guilty of wrongdoing," says Raza Shahzad, an engineering master's student at Punjab University. But, he adds, "If my home and family was obliterated by a US strike, it might also drive me to take up arms. You can understand it."

This sort of nuanced view is being heard more and more frequently from Pakistanis, illustrating the growing anger here at the Americans for strikes within their borders and also undercutting ill-feeling toward militants even after devastating bomb attacks.

A worldwide survey released by the BBC on Sunday found that Pakistan was among two nations out of 23 – the other being Egypt – where "mixed" or "positive" feelings toward Al Qaeda (22 percent and 19 percent, respectively) outweighed negative feelings (19 percent).

According to polling conducted by the US-funded International Republican Institute in January, 89 percent of Pakistanis did not support the US-led war on terror and that figure dropped marginally to 71 percent in June.

Over the past few months members of the secular upper-middle class (including middle-aged women with Gucci bags and manicured nails) have taken to protesting alongside bearded conservatives outside the US Consulate in Lahore over issues ranging from the US support of former President Pervez Musharraf to the alleged ill-treatment of Afia Siddiqui, the American-educated Pakistani woman detained by the US for alleged links to Al Qaeda, further illustrating how anti-Americanism cannot be tied down to specific demographics or political leanings.

In June, Harvard student Samad Khurram made national news after refusing an academic award by US Ambassador Anne Patterson in Islamabad, citing his disapproval for the killing of innocent Pakistanis in US airstrikes.

Badar Alam, a senior editor with Herald magazine, a leading news monthly, explains: "The general sense of Muslims being under a perennial US or Western invasion is one very basic reason people have these anti-US feelings."

Referring to the ongoing US raids that have claimed hundreds of lives in the past year, and caused the mass migration of up to 300,000 Pashtuns into neighboring Afghanistan in recent weeks, Mr. Alam says: "The mess we have in our own backyard only aggravates those feelings. Many people would have given the US the benefit of the doubt before the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq."

This tension extends beyond just the Pakistani public and is adding to the increasing assertiveness of political and military leaders.

Last Friday, Pakistani ground troops opened fire at US helicopters, prompting American forces to fire back in the Bajaur region – the first such incident acknowledged by US authorities.

At that time, government spokesman Akram Shaheedi urged US forces "not to violate [the] territorial sovereignty of Pakistan as it is counterproductive to the war on terror" – a message reinforced by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in Washington Sunday.

But on Monday, however, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate panel hearing that international laws allow the US to take unilateral actions inside Pakistan, signaling that the country can expect more such incursions.

But Rasul Baksh Raees, head of Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), believes that the Marriott attack marks a turning point in the battle for hearts and minds in the battle against the Islamist militancy. "The apologists for terror have been forced on the defensive as the public saw these victims as ordinary people. I saw my own students at LUMS protesting against the United States strikes and a few days later they mourned the deaths at the Marriott, while condemning the Taliban," he says.

Still, the Marriott bombing hardened some Pakistanis against more US intervention.

Halima Mansoor, a visual arts student at Beaconhouse National University, says, "In the aftermath of the Marriott blasts, it's abundantly clear that an ongoing US presence in the country is bad for us."

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