Poll: Pakistanis worried about terrorists, wary of U.S.

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 1, 2009 

WASHINGTON — In a reversal of public opinion, most Pakistanis now consider terrorist groups a "critical threat" to their country and support their government in its fight against the Taliban in Swat valley, according to a survey released Wednesday.

They don't have warmer feelings toward the U.S., however. On the contrary, almost two-thirds say they have little confidence in President Barack Obama and an overwhelming majority oppose U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan.

The survey, conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org, found that more than 80 percent of Pakistanis — compared with 34 percent in 2007 — consider the Taliban a critical threat in the country's tribal regions. Likewise, 82 percent of Pakistanis see the activities of al Qaida as a critical threat, compared with 41 percent in 2007.

The findings were based on 1,000 face-to-face interviews May 17-28 conducted across Pakistan.

"A sea change has occurred in Pakistani public opinion," said Clay Ramsay, the research director of the Maryland-based polling group. "The tactics and undemocratic bent of militant groups — in tribal areas as well as Swat — have brought widespread revulsion and turned Pakistanis against them."

Pakistanis were shocked when Taliban forces seized the Buner district just 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad, after they signed a peace deal that handed them virtual control of the Swat valley. Beheadings, suicide bombings and a widely circulated video of a Taliban official flogging a teenage girl in Swat also soured public opinion of the militant groups.

However, increased opposition to the Taliban hasn't improved Pakistani sentiments toward the U.S. "It's crucial to understand that the U.S. is resented just as much as before, despite the U.S. having a new president," Ramsay said.

At a time when Obama's popularity is soaring among most nations, 62 percent of Pakistanis have little to no confidence in him. Nine in 10 Pakistanis surveyed also agree that the U.S. "abuses its greater power" to secure its own interests.

More Pakistanis than ever before think that the U.S. is seeking to control oil resources in the Middle East and "weaken and divide" the Islamic world.

In the latest show of resentment, 10,000 supporters of Pakistan's oldest religious party, Jamaat-e-Islami, gathered Sunday in Karachi to protest U.S. involvement in the region.

Attacks by unmanned U.S. drones, which according to Pakistani officials killed 80 civilians last week and more than 390 people since last August, have sparked wide antagonism. Despite the relative success of the attacks, a strategy of both the Bush and Obama administrations, Pakistanis almost unanimously oppose the tactic, said Christine Fair, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research center.

"Unfortunately, what's good for us and our security may have strategic impacts on the way Pakistanis think about the U.S.," Fair told McClatchy on Wednesday. Although the drones are much more effective than the Pakistanis' military tactics, "Pakistanis universally hate the drone strikes," she said.

Those feelings are reflected in most other majority-Muslim nations. A bigger study that WorldPublicOpinion.org conducted shows that Obama still has a long way to go to win over Muslims.

Although they're skeptical of U.S. involvement, most Pakistanis support their government's offensive in and around the Swat region. Some 69 percent have confidence in their government and 72 percent in their military.

Analysts, however, warn that the support shouldn't be taken for granted and that public opinion could turn against the government quickly if the refugee crisis continues to escalate. The conflict already has displaced almost 2 million people.

ON THE WEB

"Pakistani Public Opinion on the Swat Conflict, Afghanistan and the U.S."

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