A radical turnabout in Pakistan

In just five months, public approval of Osama bin Laden has dropped by half.

This week's election results in Pakistan give Islamabad's next government the mandate to finally put the terrorists out of business. Violence in Pakistan – mostly driven by Taliban and pro-Al Qaeda forces – has not abated since the December assassination of leading opposition candidate and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. But in a potential hinge moment for what Newsweek recently called "the most dangerous nation in the world," Pakistani public opinion has turned dramatically and decisively against the radicals.

Last August, Terror Free Tomorrow (TFT) conducted a survey across Pakistan showing that from one-third to one-half of Pakistanis had a favorable opinion of Al Qaeda and related radical Islamist groups. Nearly half of respondents had a positive view of Osama bin Laden.

But now, the momentous events of the past several months – President Musharraf's crackdown against the press and opposition figures, mounting terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the assassination of Bhutto, and the campaign leading up to Monday's unprecedented election – have resulted in a sea change in Pakistani public opinion.

In a new nationwide survey conducted last month, Pakistani public support for Al Qaeda, the Taliban, bin Laden and other radical Islamist groups has plummeted by half – all the way down to the teens and single digits. The bottom has fallen out for support of the radicals.

If Al Qaeda had appeared on the ballot as a political party in the election, only 1 percent of Pakistanis would have voted for them. The Taliban would have drawn just 3 percent of the vote.

Even in areas near or in their home base, Al Qaeda and the Taliban are losing public support. Favorable opinions of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the North-West Frontier Province have sunk to single digits. In August, 70 percent of the population of this region expressed a favorable opinion of bin Laden. Today just 4 percent do.

Indeed, these survey results mirror the stinging defeat of the Islamist parties at the hands of the voters in the North-West Frontier Province. The religious parties were big losers there, winning just nine seats in the provincial assembly, as opposed to 67 in the 2002 elections.

Given the public's dramatic turnaround against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, particularly in their home base, there is a singular opportunity for a Pakistani government with the support of the people to have the legitimacy to mount an effective campaign against the terrorists.

The public's turn against the radicals was accompanied by an equally stunning move toward Pakistan's moderate, secular political parties. In TFT's August survey, only 39 percent backed the principal moderate political parties. In our January pre-election survey, 62 percent said they intended to vote for the moderate political parties in the Feb. 18 elections.

The actual election results now show that about the same percentage, in fact, voted for the moderate political parties.

The fact is, Pakistan includes a mostly young, sophisticated, and upwardly mobile population that aspires to the ideals of democracy and rule of law. If given the opportunity to choose their leaders, there can no longer be any question but they will overwhelmingly elect moderate parties, giving Pakistan a government that finally enjoys the popular legitimacy necessary to mount an effective military campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban – a legitimacy that Mr. Musharraf so clearly lacks.

Pakistan can still be an ally to the United States in its struggle against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but only if democracy is allowed to flourish.

Last Thursday, Musharraf said that the methods of TFT and other polling organizations "have value in developed countries but not here." Perhaps because, as a leading national independent Pakistani newspaper concluded, polling helped make "rigging of the elections somewhat difficult."

As Pakistan's moderate parties now consolidate power, they, too, should heed public opinion and remember that there are two mandates from this election. In addition to the widespread support that has swept the moderates to power, the Pakistani public has just as powerfully rejected extremism in all its forms.

Bhutto gave her life for the belief that a freer, more democratic Pakistan would in and of itself be a better partner to the US in the war on terror – indeed, that the people could be the strongest bulwark against the radicals.

Pakistan, with a new American policy that supports democracy, development, and economic opportunity, can help ensure that her dream did not pass away along with her.

Reza Aslan is Middle East analyst for CBS News and author of "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam." Kenneth Ballen is president of Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion.

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