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Why Pakistanis see US bigger threat than Al Qaeda?

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Support for a larger role for Islam is not unexpected in Pakistan where religion has been exploited for political purpose for a long time by successive governments and even by the US during the US-backed Jihad against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Hence it is not surprising that the US Peace Institute funded survey finds a strong public support for giving Islam a wider role in Pakistan.

However, a number of poll questions revealed that the Pakistani public’s support for Islam playing a larger role in their country does not signify support for extreme religious conservatism.  Majorities of all Pakistanis—even majorities of those who favor a greater role for Islamic law — oppose an increase in Talibanization and support reforming structures of a conservative character dating from the time of President General Ziaul Haq (1977-1988).

At the same time a large majority of Pakistanis have negative views of Islamic militant organizations such as al Qaeda, local Taliban, and Pakistani militant groups. The activities of these groups are seen as threats to Pakistan and the use of violence against civilians is overwhelmingly rejected.

The poll, conducted by World Public Opinion for the government-funded US Institute for Peace, surveyed 907 adults in 19 Pakistani cities from Sept. 12-28, 2007. About 49 percent of the respondents were women. Initial findings were first released on October 31, 2007 and detailed report of the survey was released on January 7, 2008. 

However the most striking result of the poll is that majority of Pakistanis see the American military presence in the region a far greater threat to their country than Al Qaeda. The survey indicated that 72 percent of Pakistanis view the US military presence in Asia as a "critical threat" to the "vital interests of Pakistan." 

At the same time Pakistanis reject overwhelmingly the idea of permitting foreign troops to attack al Qaeda on Pakistani territory. Four out of five (80%) say their government should not allow American or other foreign troops to enter Pakistan to pursue and capture al Qaeda fighters.” Three out of four (77%) oppose allowing foreign troops to attack Taliban insurgents based in Pakistan. 

Tellingly, majority opinion toward the United States is negative.

Pakistanis view the United States as an untrustworthy superpower. A majority (64%) expressed doubt that the United States could be trusted “to act responsibly in the world,” including 49 percent who answered not at all” and 16 percent who said ““not very much.” 

A majority of Pakistanis give some credence to America’s stated goal of defending itself from terrorist attacks. A majority (63%) said that it is a goal f the United States to prevent more attacks such as those on the World Trade Center in 2001. 

However, larger majorities perceive other, more perfidious, goals. About three-quarters (78%) also said that the United States wants to “maintain control over the oil resources of the Middle East. 

Three out of four even believe that it is a US goal to “spread Christianity in the Middle East.” Seventy-five percent said this was definitely a US goal, while only 10 percent said that it was not.

Perhaps most strikingly, an overwhelming majority believes that the United States has goals that are hostile to Islam itself. A remarkably high 86 percent agreed that it was a US goal to “weaken and divide the Islamic world.”  Furthermore, this view appears to be growing up substantially – up 13 points from February 2007 when 73 percent said it was a US goal.

These critical findings gain significance in view of the reports that the US administration is considering a proposal to give more powers to the Central Intelligence Agency and the military to conduct aggressive covert operations in Pakistan’s tribal areas along its border with Afghanistan. The United States now has only about 50 troops in Pakistan that could grow substantially under the new plan.

The US government has been calling on President Parwez Musharraf to do more to fight militants along the Pak-Afghan border areas which are seen as a safe haven for Taliban and al-Qaeda militants. However, actions taken by Musharraf to satisfy his external critics have not only fallen short but have had the double-barreled effect of intensifying opposition to the government in the tribal areas and further eroding Musharraf’s political support throughout the country.

Any direct American military action would further anger the Pakistanis. Raids by American troops would prompt a powerful popular backlash against the United States and President Musharraf who is extremely unpopular. One of major reason of his unpopularity is deployment of about 100,000 Pakistan army tribal territories along Pakistan-Afghanistan border under pressure from America. Army is seen fighting its own people in the name of “war on terrorism.”

There is also another alarming report that unveils a new and classified American military proposal for an intensified effort to enlist tribal leaders in the border areas of Pakistan in the fight against  Al-Qaida and the Taliban, as part of a broader effort to bolster Pakistani forces.

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Author and journalist. Author of Islamic Pakistan: Illusions & Reality; Islam in the Post-Cold War Era; Islam & Modernism; Islam & Muslims in the Post-9/11 America. Currently working as free lance journalist. Executive Editor of American (more...)
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