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PAKISTAN: Public Backs Army’s Push Against Taliban, Poll Finds

Jared Levy

WASHINGTON, Jul 1 2009 (IPS) - Pakistani public opinion remains supportive of the military’s fight against the Pakistani Taliban, said a new poll released Wednesday. However, Pakistanis roundly reject the U.S. military campaign in the region.

The poll, from, a project of the Programme of International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland, is being released as Pakistani forces continue their campaign to push the Taliban out of the Swat Valley and are reportedly planning to increase operations aimed at Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud in the province of South Waziristan.

According to the poll, 70 percent of Pakistanis said they are more sympathetic with their government than the Taliban, while only five percent said they were more sympathetic with the Taliban.

Also, Gen. Jim Jones, U.S. President Barack Obama’s national security advisor, commended the Pakistani military for their campaign in the tribal areas of Pakistan after a recent meeting with Pakistani political and military leaders.

In an interview after his meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Jones called the Pakistani effort a “tremendous confidence builder for the future”.

“That translates into popular support in the United States for what the government is trying to do, what the army is trying to do, and it obviously helps us in our overall fight,” Jones continued. “It’s a strategic moment, and the relationship is definitely moving in the right direction.”

However, U.S. support will not be enough to ensure the success of Pakistan’s battle against insurgents in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Far more important is the continued support of the local populace of the NWFP, FATA and the Pakistani populace at large for the army’s battle against the militants.

The recent poll conducted by shows that a majority of Pakistanis support their government’s campaign against the Taliban, but reject the U.S. military presence in the region.

PIPA conducted 1,000 face-to-face interviews over a 12-day period from May 17 to May 28. Poll respondents proportionally reflected the ethnic and geographic makeup of Pakistan, and the questions dealt primarily with the central government’s fight against the Pakistan Taliban, al Qaeda, the NATO campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and U.S. military strikes at Taliban bases in Pakistan.

While nearly three-quarters of Pakistanis said they are more sympathetic with their government than the Taliban, only 32 percent had a favourable opinion of Zardari, who took the reins of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) after his then-wife and party leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in late 2007.

Pakistanis were split on the ceasefire that involved the Taliban disbanding their training camps and giving up their heavy weapons in exchange for being allowed to impose a Sharia legal system in parts of the NWFP including the Swat Valley, though support for the peace agreement did drop slightly (from 45 to 40 percent). A majority of 63 percent of Pakistanis felt the residents of Swat were opposed to such a deal.

The fighting between the Pakistani Army and the Taliban broke out after the latter violated the ceasefire by expanding its presence into areas outside those designated by the agreement, such as when militants from Swat pushed into the adjacent Buner province – less than 100 kms from the capital, Islamabad.

Large majorities of respondents were confident in the ability of the government (69 percent) and the military (72 percent) to handle the situation.

Fifty-five percent of Pakistanis interviewed for the poll had a negative view of al Qaeda, while 27 percent had a positive view and 16 percent held a mixed view. Despite this, only 3 percent of Pakistanis felt that al Qaeda should be allowed to operate training camps in Pakistan while 88 percent opposed the idea – a ‘not in my backyard’ sentiment.

While most Pakistanis didn’t think that the Afghan Taliban – which is engaged in a war with the U.S. – was operating out of Pakistan, nearly nine in 10 thought that such bases should not be allowed, with more than three-quarters saying that military force should be used to remove such bases.

The majority of respondents had cynical views of U.S. intentions in the region. Eighty-two percent felt the U.S. wanted to impose “American culture” on Muslim societies while 71 percent doubted the U.S.’s sincerity in demands for a Palestinian state.

Pakistani support for al Qaeda seems to be largely based on a perceived shared dislike for the U.S., rather than a religious or ideological convergence of ideals.

However, the results of the poll, indicating broad support for the Pakistani military’s campaign against the Taliban, are not cause for the government of Pakistan to assume it has done enough to win the hearts and minds of the local population of the NWFP.

By all accounts the military currently has the support of the majority of the populace of the NWFP, but the humanitarian crisis in the region suggests that support may be fleeting if actions are not taken to alleviate the suffering of the populace.

Fighting in the NWFP has lead to roughly 2.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). Over 20 official camps have been set up to house the IDPs, but only 10 to 15 percent of the IDPs have found their way to the camps. The rest are packed into schools, government buildings and the houses of family, friends and, often, complete strangers.

Dr. Balqias Khan, the Pakistan director for International Rescue Committee, says that living conditions for IDP’s outside of camps are “appalling”.

“In my 15 years as a health care professional I’ve never seen conditions like this in Pakistan,” he says. “Between the overcrowding and the unsanitary conditions the environment is ripe for a major outbreak unless things change rapidly.”

According to a recent U.N. Situation Report, the U.N. has obtained only 36 percent of the funds required to adequately address the IDP crisis.

U.S. lawmakers are not blind to the importance of providing humanitarian aid to the IDPs in Pakistan. To date, the U.S. has been by far the biggest donor to the U.N. emergency fund for Pakistan.

On Jun. 25, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill co-written by Senators John Kerry Massachusetts and Richard Lugar. The bill calls for the tripling of civilian aid to Pakistan over the next five years. Kerry referred to the bill as a “landmark commitment by the United States to the people of Pakistan”.

After a holiday recess, lawmakers will try to reconcile the bill with a similar one passed recently in the House of Representatives and begin the flow of aid.

The vast majority of the fighting so far has been in the NWFP, where most of the IDPs have come from. However, as the Pakistani military gears up to take the fight to Mehsud’s stronghold in South Waziristan, some 45,000 civilians have fled that area in anticipation of violence to come.

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