Poll: Pakistanis worried about Taliban, economy

The survey found only 10 percent of the population is worried about terrorism, but 69 percent said the Taliban and Al Qaeda were a problem.

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Few in Pakistan see terrorism as their biggest concern. But many say the Taliban and Al Qaeda presence in Pakistan is a serious problem, according to a survey released Monday.

The poll, which was conducted in March before the start of the current military operation against Taliban forces in the Northwest Frontier Province, shows a country worried about its economic future and restless over the seriousness of the Taliban threat and the best way to confront it.

Calling the survey "arguably out of date" due to the steep escalation in Pakistan's conflict with the Taliban since March 30, a Reuters analysis of the poll says it reveals "how conflicted Pakistanis have become in their views, and the scale of the challenge the government has faced trying to win support for its counterterrorism strategy." It called the results "a sea change" in Pakistani attitudes towards military cooperation with the US, with 37 percent of the public supporting joint counterterror initiatives. Fifteen months ago, just 9 percent of Pakistanis supported joint operations.

Economic concerns remained the biggest worry for the largest number of people, says the Washington, D.C.-based International Republican Institute (IRI), which conducted the poll. A total of 77 percent of Pakistanis cited some form of economic insecurity as their biggest worry, while just 10 percent said terrorism was their largest concern. The survey also found that a majority of the public supports instituting some form of Islamic law.

The survey did find "rising concern over terrorism in general," with the number of people feeling threatened by religious extremism – and calling for a military response – to be at a historic high. 

Although only 10 percent of respondents cited terrorism as the most important issue, the March 2009 poll registered rising concern over terrorism in general.  When asked if they felt that religious extremism was a serious problem in Pakistan, 74 percent replied yes, the highest percentage since September 2007.  The highest percentage yet, 69 percent, agreed that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda operating in Pakistan was a serious problem, while 45 percent said that they supported the Pakistani Army fighting the extremists in the North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, another all-time high.            

The poll also revealed deep unhappiness with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain leader Benazir Bhutto who is currently charged with leading the fight against the Taliban. His approval rating has fallen to 19 percent, far behind opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who, IRI says, has the support of 75 percent of the public. The survey found that 71 percent of respondents want him to serve as president. 

According to the Press Trust of India, Mr. Sharif's support grew sharply after government efforts to bar him and his brother, Shabaz Sharif, the governor of Punjab Province, from holding elected office. The poll was conducted during the campaign to rescind that ban, an effort that was ultimately successful. 

The time-frame in which the poll was conducted coincided with the climax of a movement launched by Sharif and his brother Shabaz Sharif against the Supreme Court's order barring them from holding elected office. The protests forced the government to restore deposed Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and weakened Zardari's grip on power.
The survey indicated that Pakistanis are of the "overall opinion that conditions in the country remain poor, and as president of the country, Zardari is viewed as responsible". Respondents gave Zardari an approval rating of 19 per cent, unchanged since the last poll in October 2008.
The number of people viewing Sharif favorably increased 15 points to 75 per cent, placing him well ahead of the rest of the field. Asked who they felt was the best person to solve the problems of Pakistan, 55 per cent of respondents named Sharif, up from 31 per cent in the last poll by IRI.

Reuters reports that when the survey was taken in March, a large majority of Pakistanis supported the government's peace deal in the Swat Valley, in which the government acquiesced to the Taliban's demands of instituting Islamic law, or sharia, in the region. A smaller majority was also willing to institute Islamic law in some of the country's largest cities in exchange for peace. 

The survey showed 80 percent of people supported the deal to introduce sharia in Swat and neighboring parts of the northwest, and most had expected it to bring peace.
Moreover, 56 percent of Pakistanis said they would back any future Taliban demand for sharia in cities outside the northwest, including Karachi, Quetta, Multan and Lahore.

It is unclear how the survey results would differ if it were taken today, now that the Swat peace deal has collapsed and open war against the Taliban has begun. The government launched an offensive against Taliban positions in the northwest last week, after the militants violated the terms of the Swat peace deal by seizing control of Buner District, 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad.

The Associated Press reports that the Pakistani Army dropped commandos behind Taliban lines in Swat Valley Tuesday as the government intensified its offensive. 

It is unclear how many civilians have been injured in the fighting, although hundreds of thousands have fled their homes. Pakistan's Daily Times says aid agencies have predicted that as many as 1 million people could flee the combat zone, with 200,000 fleeing their homes in the Swat valley in the last seven days alone.

They call it "the biggest internal displacement in Pakistan since independence," when millions of people were forced to move as the country was partitioned from India

The IRI poll was conducted between March 7 and March 30, 2009, and interviewed 3,500 adult men and women in 216 rural and 134 urban locations across each of the country's four provinces. It has a margin of error of 1.66 percent, according to IRI. 

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