The US is in the middle of a $7.5 billion aid program to Pakistan. But America's image is slipping in the country, where its unfavorable rating is almost as bad as the Taliban's and even Al Qaeda is more popular.
The Pakistan Taliban may be responsible for attacks that have killed more than 1,000 civilians this year. The US may be in the midst of providing the country with $7.5 billion in aid. But average Pakistanis like the United States less than Al Qaeda and just a little more than the Taliban.
Roughly 17 percent of Pakistanis have a favorable view of the US in a new poll by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, while 59 percent described the US as an "enemy" of Pakistan. The Taliban's numbers? About 15 percent view the group favorably (up from 10 percent a year ago). Al Qaeda pips both groups, with 18 percent of Pakistanis viewing the group favorably, up from 9 percent a year ago.
The survey was conducted among 2,000 Pakistanis from April 13-28, 2010.
The findings are likely to add more fuel to the domestic debate over whether American largess is advancing US interests in the region. A vast trove of United States government documents released by the website Wikileaks this week added more evidence for the belief that Pakistan supports the Taliban inside Afghanistan, leaving many Americans wondering if some of the aid to Pakistan isn't ending up in the hands of Taliban operatives trying to kill US soldiers in Afghanistan. Capturing the mood, influential US humorist Jon Stewart said this week: "We have ostensibly put a hit out on ourselves. This is insanity."
In Pakistan, opposition to conditions attached to the $7.5 billion aid package and ongoing concern about civilian causalities in US drone strikes aimed at Al Qaeda leaders are major factors fueling anti-Americanism, says Christine Fair, a political scientist at Georgetown University.
A surge of conspiracy theories that absolve the Taliban for recent sectarian attacks and instead blame outside forces may help explain the decreased perception of a threat from the Taliban.
“The narrative is these attacks are being carried out by India or Blackwater,” says Professor Fair, referring to the controversial US security contractor now known as Xe. And ordinary Pakistanis are dismayed by what they see as increasingly close US ties with rival India. About 53 percent of Pakistanis described India as the greatest threat to the country, while 23 percent see the Taliban as the greatest threat.
In the Main Market shopping area of Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural hub, traders and shoppers are almost unanimous in voicing dissatisfaction with Pakistan’s relationship with the United States.
“What kind of friends are the Americans? They are our false friends and in reality are trying to tear us apart. That’s why they are maintaining good relations with India who back the Taliban, while at the same time giving our leaders money to fight the Taliban,” says Muhammad Yousuf, a retired shopkeeper, while sipping tea after Friday prayers.
Several people express the view that the Taliban were not behind attacks on two-Ahmadi sect mosques in May that killed more than 100 people, or the attack on the Data Ganj Baksh shrine in Lahore in July that killed some 40 people.
“Who can say who carried out these attacks? No Muslims could have possibly attacked other Muslims like this,” says Riaz Ahmad, a parking attendant.
Whisper campaigns, carried out by extremist organizations and often circulated by text messages, are partly to blame for the proliferation of such theories, says Professor Fair, and may be backed by Pakistan’s military establishment. “Such campaigns are fostered by the establishment itself to continue to create the space where they can turn around and tell the US they are being limited. So they can say 'Give us more goodies and we’ll hate you less.'”
The threat to civilian life posed by US predator drones, she says, is similarly overblown and helps foment hatred towards America. “The discourse around the drones obfuscates the fact that the drones are operated from a Pakistani airflield,” she says, adding that the number of civilian casualties reported in the Pakistani media are “not realistic.”
While more educated and affluent Pakitanis generally recognize Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Punjab-based militant outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba as a threat, few trust America or view it as a reliable ally.
“[The Americans] look after their own strategic interests when it suits them. They stop supporting Pakistan when it doesn’t suit them,” says Jalal Hussain, a law student. He is among the minority who describe the Islamist insurgency in the country’s northwest as “the most serious threat facing Pakistan right now."
The survey also shows that Pakistanis have a bleak view of their own country: 84 percent of Pakistanis are dissatisfied with the state of their nation, and 78 percent say the current economic situation is very bad or somewhat bad. President Zardari’s popularity ratings have dropped to about 20 percent, down from 64 percent when he took office.
According to the survey, there is widespread support for harsher Islamic punishments in Pakistan, with 82 percent in favor of stoning to death adulterers and 76 percent in favor of the death penalty for apostasy. Eighty-five percent expressed support for gender segregation in the workplace.
Such statistics should be treated with caution, says Fair of Georgetown University.
“An inherent flaw with such questions is what is known as ‘social desirability bias’, where the respondent anticipates what answer might be socially desirable. Very few people are going to reject options that are going to sound more Islamic because they might be judged by the questioner,” she says.