Make no mistake, the Taliban are regaining ground in Pakistan, at least in the court of public opinion. A recent survey has revealed a dramatic 50% increase in a favourable view of the Taliban in Pakistan.
The results from a survey of 2,000 adult (mostly urban) Pakistanis, conducted in April 2010, have revealed that 15% Pakistanis had a favourable view of the Taliban, up from 10% in 2009. At the same time, 65% Pakistanis expressed unfavourable view of Taliban, which was down from 70% in 2009. The survey was conducted by Pew Global Attitudes Project, which is based in Washington, DC.
Al-Qaeda has in fact seen even a more dramatic increase in its popularity in Pakistan. The number of Pakistanis having a favourable view of al Qaeda doubled from 9% in 2009 to 18% in 2010. At the same time those having an unfavourable view of al Qaeda declined from 61% in 2009 to 53% in 2010. Concomitantly, Pakistanis are becoming less concerned about the threat of extremist groups taking control of Pakistan. This is happening even when there is no real change in threats faced by Pakistanis.
These are indeed troubling trends. At the time when Pakistan is facing grave economic, social, and security challenges, militant extremists are gaining popularity in Pakistan. This is probably an outcome of the failed governance by the federal, provincial, and local governments, which has resulted in massive unemployment, high inflation, and a complete breakdown of civil infrastructure.
It should come as no surprise that most Pakistanis believe that the current economic situation is indeed ‘very bad’. 78% Pakistanis had a very unfavourable view of the economic situation in 2010, up from 32% in 2007. What is even more alarming is that the number of those who worry about the future economic conditions in Pakistan has increased over 200% from 2008, when only 16% expressed worries about future, compared to one in two Pakistanis in 2010.
This does not bode well for the democratic forces in Pakistan. The polls suggest that the masses view economy performing better under a military dictator (General Musharraf) than under democratic setups. These facts are not lost on the military, which has perhaps gained the most from the gory chaos in Pakistan. The military has regained its popularity since its reputation was dragged in mud by the actions taken by General Musharraf against the Supreme Court in 2007. No fewer than 84% Pakistanis in 2010 believed that the military had a good impact on their country. Pakistani politicians should learn a thing or two from the military, or for that matter al Qaeda, about how to stay popular amongst Pakistanis.
While the military may have regained its popularity, fewer than one-half of Pakistanis support military action against the Taliban in Pakistan's tribal areas. Another 20% Pakistanis in fact oppose any military action against the Taliban.
While the militants are gaining ground in popularity, popularity of the political leadership in Pakistan has taken a nosedive. Consider president Zardari, who was viewed favourably by 64% Pakistanis in 2008, is now viewed favourably by no more than one in five of his fellow countrymen. Even within his own party, i.e., the Pakistan People's Party, his popularity at 38% suggests that he is fast losing ground even amongst his own political base.
In an earlier blog, I have charted (see the graph below) the unpopularity index for president Zardari, which showed that he became increasingly unpopular starting fall 2009.
With President Zardari fast becoming a dark horse in this political race, other political players are slowly gaining ground in Pakistan. The leader of the opposition, Mian Nawaz Sharif, is the most favourably viewed politician in Pakistan where 71% reported having a favourable view of him. Also viewed favourably is the current chief justice of the supreme court, as well as the cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan.
The Pakistanis (civilians and military alike) continue to be obsessed with India with over 53% having the view that India poses the greatest threat to Pakistan. The Taliban at 23% and al Qaeda at 3% lag far behind India in ordinary Pakistanis' threat perception. This skewed view of reality is perhaps behind Pakistan military's plans to continue engaging with the Taliban to gain their ‘strategic depth’ against India. This flawed policy has brought Pakistan to an economic, social, and moral disaster.
Given the unpopularity of drone attacks and the military action in tribal Pakistan, it comes as no surprise that only a tiny minority in Pakistan regards president Obama favourably. Fewer than 8% Pakistanis expressed confidence in president Obama, whereas 17% Pakistanis held a favourable view of the United States. Not all is lost for the United States and Pakistan. A very large number of Pakistanis, 64% to be precise, expressed their desire to improve relations between Pakistan and the United States.
The United States should review these trends objectively and consider abolishing policies and actions that have made president Obama unpopular in Pakistan. The suspension of drone attacks alone would go a long way in improving president Obama’s image in Pakistan. Given the limited success of drone attacks, and the large number of civilian casualties that has resulted from such attacks, the United States should not be too concerned in stopping drone attacks, which also constitute a violation of international law.
While stopping drone attacks will help improve America’s image in the region, nothing short of a complete withdrawal of NATO troops from the region would achieve resumption of normalized relations between South Asia and the United States. Fewer than 7% Pakistanis favoured keeping NATO troops in Afghanistan until the security situation would improve. An overwhelming majority of 65% Pakistanis would like to see NATO leave Afghanistan sooner than later.
The political leadership in Pakistan should realize that time is fast running out on them. Their political fortunes are collapsing, and those of the militants and the military are fast rising. The scandal about parliamentarians with fake academic degrees has damaged the already compromised reputation of politicians in Pakistan. Political parties of all stripes have been dragging their feet in eradicating fraudulent politicians with fake academic degrees from their cadres. Such lack of moral integrity in the political spheres in Pakistan is behind the improving outlook of the both the militants and the military.
It would indeed be a sad day in Pakistan if the military would ride back into power, again unsettling the democratic setup in Pakistan. By losing the trust of their fellow countrymen, politicians will partially be responsible, if not completely, for derailing democracy in Pakistan.