Trying times for Pakistan —Abbas Rashid

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Another survey from the International Republican Institute carried out in Pakistan over October 15-30 this year points to popular perceptions that among other things make the challenges within and without appear even more formidable

The high level of tension between India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the Mumbai blasts, having gone down somewhat, is on the rise again. India contends that Pakistan has not delivered on its promise to take decisive action against those alleged to be responsible. The media has carried reports about possible ‘surgical strikes’ by India, countered by stark warnings from Pakistan that any such strike would be seen as an act of aggression leading to war, with the implication that such a war may not remain ‘limited’. Just so that the message is not lost on anyone, low-flying Pakistan Air Force fighters have been criss-crossing Pakistani skies.

On Wednesday, the National Assembly passed a unanimous resolution supporting the government’s efforts to defuse tension and demanding reciprocity from India: “[The house] condemns the war hype in a situation where war is not an option given the nuclear capabilities of both countries.”

It is a measure of the power that non-state actors have come to wield in the context of Pak-India relations that within weeks we have gone from finding ways to energise a sluggish peace process to figuring out how to avoid conflict that only extremists on both sides stand to gain by.

At the same time, there are media reports that operations against militants in the tribal areas have been scaled down and some unannounced repositioning of troops has taken place. This is likely to jeopardise whatever gains have been made against the militants over the past few months at a time when their ability to challenge the writ of the government and sow fear among the people not just in the tribal areas but also in areas such as Swat and even Peshawar seems not to have been significantly dented.

Meanwhile, we have another survey from the International Republican Institute carried out in Pakistan over October 15-30 this year. It points to popular perceptions that among other things make the challenges within and without appear even more formidable. According to the survey, an overwhelming majority of the people interviewed see Pakistan heading in the wrong direction. Presumably, this sense of pessimism has a lot to do with economic difficulties.

To a question regarding the state of their personal economic situation, nearly three-fourth of the respondents said that it had worsened over the past year. It is unlikely that the contribution of the policies of the previous government is a factor considered by most of those presently groaning under severe economic hardship. A large majority sees little prospect of improvement in their economic situation next year, and clearly the global economic crisis is unlikely to help in this regard.

In order to get a sense of what the economic crisis at home means for most people, let us juxtapose the responses on questions related to terrorism and those dealing with issues of the economy:

Over three-fourth of the respondents disagreed with the statement that they felt more secure this year than they did last year. In an environment in which terrorism and violence has increased, this is not an unexpected answer. But when asked what in their view was the most important issue facing Pakistan, over three-fourth responded by indicating issues that have to do with the state of the economy — 58 percent cited inflation, 12 percent unemployment and 7 percent poverty. It is a measure, also, of the extent to which serious and immediate concerns continue to trump a broad-based focus on necessary long-term strategies that only 1 percent of the respondents indicated education in their response.

The survey also suggests a complex picture with regard to the somewhat related issues of religiosity, extremism, the military operation in FATA and the role of the US: even as a majority favours a larger role for sharia, nearly two-thirds of the people interviewed see religious extremism as a serious problem in Pakistan. We get the sense that by sharia, they do not mean the system forced on the people by the Taliban as little over half of the respondents also agreed that the Taliban and Al Qaeda operating in Pakistan is a serious problem. A significantly lower percentage, but still, in what has been widely regarded as an unpopular war, over one-third support the army fighting extremists in NWFP and FATA, with about half opposed.

But who are these extremists? When in a set of questions they are identified as Al Qaeda or the Taliban, the support for army action remains around one-third of the respondents. But when a question identifies the extremists being fought as foreigners receiving aid from foreign sources to plan suicide attacks to kill Pakistanis and weaken the nation, nearly two-thirds of the respondents support the use of military force to protect the nation — over one-third agreeing strongly with the idea and over one-fourth saying they ‘somewhat agree’.

The high level of resentment against `foreigners’, is equally evident when it comes to cooperation with the US in the context of its war against terror: Nearly two-thirds oppose such cooperation while over a quarter agree that Pakistan should cooperate. Interestingly, those opposed are down from nearly 90 percent in January this year by a little over a quarter, and those supporting the action have increased from a low of 9 percent in January.

In the event that the trend continues, it might be an indication that a larger number of people are reluctantly coming around to the view that while the Bush administration bears a high burden of responsibility for pushing us into the mess that we find ourselves in, state and society in Pakistan at this point are seriously threatened by the actions of the extremists — nearly half the respondents broadly agree with the idea that the US should assist in fighting foreign extremists in the tribal areas.

That said, a significantly greater number of respondents were more concerned with the US firing missiles at what were termed as terrorist camps in Pakistan than they were over Al Qaeda and the Taliban using Pakistan as a base of operations to attack Afghanistan. The message it seems is that direct US intervention is strongly resented whereas a substantial number of respondents are prone to agree that in Pakistan’s war against foreign extremists, US help may be necessary. Two-thirds of the respondents went on to agree that militants go against the injunctions of Islam when they kill non-combatant women and children or peace negotiators.

While in this survey, as in others, issues of bias and error remain, some of the above-mentioned responses to related questions could help in formulating a more nuanced set of policies to deal with the internal and external threats.

Abbas Rashid lives in Lahore and can be contacted at

Reproduced by permission of DT\12\27\story_27-12-2008_pg3_2

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