July 12th, 2011
12:45 PM ET

Pakistan's middle class extremists

By Graeme BlairChristine FairNeil Malhotra and Jacob N. Shapiro

Since al Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and then attacked the World Trade Center three years later, the United States has dedicated billions of dollars and thousands of lives to addressing the threat of terrorism.

Over time, policymakers converged on economic development as a key to ending terrorism, in the belief that poorer people are more susceptible to the appeals of violent groups or more likely to perpetrate violence themselves. If economic development aid raised incomes, the thinking went, support for militant groups would diminish.

This logic has taken hold at the highest levels of American policymaking. In 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama argued in favor of sending more development aid to poor countries, because “extremely poor societies” are “optimal breeding grounds for disease, terrorism, and conflict.” The same year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concurred, declaring economic development an “integral part of America’s national security policy.”

Yet there is no evidence that economic development changes attitudes toward violent militant groups, or even that it is the poor whose attitudes are problematic.

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A number of scholars, including Claude BerrebiAlberto Abadie, and Alan Kreuger and Jitka Malečková, have found that people who join terrorist groups are predominantly from middle-class or wealthy families.

Public opinion scholarship, such as that of Najeeb M. Shafiq and Abdulkader Sinno, and Mark Tessler and Michael Robbins, suggests that differences in income and education do not explain variation in support for suicide bombing and other forms of violence.

According to Oeindrila Dube and Juan Vargas, job loss appears to correlate with greater violence in Colombia. And Effi Benmelech, Berrebi, and Esteban Klor have found that poor economic conditions enable Palestinian groups to recruit higher-quality operatives.

But in another study, Eli Berman explained that regions with higher unemployment in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Philippines are actually less violent. In Iraq, moreover, there is no evidence that large-scale development programs affect violence, although small-scale programs administered with deep knowledge of the local context do. Even then, the mechanisms that link small-scale aid programs to diminished violence remain unknown.

Closing this gap in understanding about the relationship between poverty and terrorism could not be more pressing. The United States and its allies have already directed billions of dollars in development aid to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the last ten years, with no demonstrable impact on the spread of Islamic militancy. With scarce resources to spend, they should be more careful about how they invest them.

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The stakes are particularly high in Pakistan. The country provides haven for Islamist terrorists that operate in India and Afghanistan and is itself the victim of a militant insurgency that has killed or injured some 35,000 Pakistanis since 2004.

Currently, programs meant to address the problem of homegrown Pakistani militancy by alleviating poverty dominate the Western aid agenda. The 2009 U.S. Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, for example, proposed spending $7.5 billion on economic development in Pakistan, with the express aim of “combating militant extremism.”

To test the assumption that poor people are more likely to become radicalized, we fielded a 6,000-person, nationally representative survey of Pakistanis in the four provinces of Punjab, Balochistan, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province) in the spring of 2009.

The survey measured attitudes toward four important militant groups: al Qaeda; the Afghan Taliban; the so-called Kashmiri groups, which include Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Hizbul Mujahideen, among others; and sectarian groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba. The survey was much larger than any previous effort and, for the first time, included rural Pakistan.

Previous studies had been undermined by low response rates, perhaps because they asked Pakistanis directly about their support for militant groups. Instead, we measured attitudes toward the groups using an indirect questioning technique called an “endorsement” experiment.

We presented respondents with a set of four policy issues, including World Health Organization’s administration of polio vaccinations and the redefinition of the Durand Line separating Pakistan from Afghanistan, and asked how much they supported each. Some respondents were told that one of the four militant groups supported the policy. Comparing the support for each policy of those who were told a militant group supported the policy with those who were not gives the measure of support for the group.

The data revealed four findings that undermine common wisdom about support for militancy in Pakistan. First, survey participants were generally negatively inclined toward all four militant organizations. Contrary to some popular accounts, Pakistanis do not have a taste for militants. Moreover, they appear to differentiate between groups in subtle ways. Pakistanis were far more likely to believe that the Kashmiri groups provide public goods - schools, health clinics, and the like - than they were to associate other organizations with suchpositive activities. They were also much more likely to say that the Kashmiri groups are fighting for good things, such as justice and democracy than they were about the others.

Second, Pakistanis living in violent parts of the country, in Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa in particular, strongly disliked these groups. This is likely because they pay a disproportionately high price for militant violence, regardless of their views about the groups’ goals. Those from comparatively peaceful areas do not bear the full costs of militant action.

Read: Turkey's maturing foreign policy.

Third, poor Pakistanis nationwide disliked the militant groups about two times more than middle class Pakistanis, who were mildly positive toward the groups. We suspect that this is because much of Pakistan’s militant violence is concentrated in poorer areas and in the bazaars and mosques where less affluent people sell goods, shop, and pray. In addition to being in more physical danger than the rich, the poor are at more of an economic risk from attacks, and income losses are more consequential for them. Wealthier people often have servants run errands to bazaars, and when they do personal shopping they are likelier to do so in upscale stores in their own neighborhoods, which are safer.

Finally, this dislike is strongest among poor urban residents. The negative relationship between poverty and support for militancy is three times stronger in urban Pakistan than in the country as a whole. This finding reinforces the idea that the dislike of the groups is driven by greater exposure to their attacks, which are concentrated in urban areas.

Overall, the findings suggest that arguments tying support for militancy to individuals’ socioeconomic status - and the policy recommendations that often flow from this assumption - require substantial revision.

Most governments, including that of the United States, are still reeling from the global recession and looking to make budget cuts where possible. Development assistance aimed at alleviating poverty should not be stopped; countries such as Pakistan have legitimate development needs pertaining to education, health care, and economic growth to support its massive youth bulge. But expecting those programs to reduce militancy is misguided. There are many good reasons to offer development assistance, but counter-radicalization, counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism are not among them.

Editor's Note: Graeme Blair is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. C. Christine Fair is an assistant professor in the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. Neil Malhotra is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Jacob N. Shapiro is an assistant professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com and was reprinted with permission.

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soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Bashar

    Why have this misleading heading when article enforces just the opposite?
    No wonder why Pakistan is perceived in a negative way around the world thanks to great media.

    July 12, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Although terrorism is criminal and condemned, one finds often middle class folks who sympathise with it. The educated ones have more civil courage and embrace the spirit of Robin Hood.
      The survey concluded only 4 major groups of terrorists and left out the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban, which is loathed as it destablises the country. The others don't pose a threat to Pakistan at all.

      July 15, 2011 at 10:25 am | Reply
  2. Palchy

    STOP already with the foreign aid. All it does is create dependency, the money is misused & it only encourages countries to fail. If you give poor people money – you are going to have a lot of poor people.

    July 12, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  3. Onesmallvoice

    Ever since 1950 those idiots in Washington have been far more concerned with all these "poor" third world countries than with the situation here in the U.S. Lately our economy has been deteriorating but the idiots in Washington can't seem to give away enough of our tax money in order to pay off these corrupt leaders. Case in point, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen who continues to butcher his own people in order to retain power with U.S. aid, of course!!!

    July 12, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Reply
  4. Meiser

    Terror has nothing to do with poverty. It's always to do with doctrine. The worlds 1st terrorist? Here he is Bukhari (4.52.220):

    Allah's Apostle said, "I have been sent with the shortest expressions bearing the widest meanings, and I have been made victorious with terror (cast in the hearts of the enemy), and while I was sleeping, the keys of the treasures of the world were brought to me and put in my hand." Abu Huraira added: Allah's Apostle has left the world and now you, people, are bringing out those treasures (i.e. the Prophet did not benefit by them).

    July 12, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Reply
  5. Meiser

    When Mohammed himself claims his victory is through Terror, why deny the followers the fact they emulate their leader and instead investigate nonsensical things like poverty etc?

    Ibn Ishaq describes in his biography of Muhammad that on invading Mecca, he ordered his men not to kill anybody who did not resist the invasion, ... except for the people on a “high-value target list”. Those people had to be hunted down and killed. Among them were two singing girls Farhana and her friend. Their crime: singing satirical songs about Muhammed.

    Other people on the list with their crimes were as follows:

    1 Abdullah bin Sa’d: leaving Islam
    2 Abdullah bin Khatal: leaving Islam and killing a freed slave
    3 Al-Huwayrith bin Nuqaydh bin Wahb bin Abd bin Qusayy: insulting Muhammad
    4 Miqyas bin Hubaba: leaving Islam and killing a muslim from Medina who had killed his brother accidentally
    5 Sara: insulting Muhammad in Mecca (that happend over 8 years earlier)

    July 12, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Reply
  6. Meiser

    Pakistan is obsessed with India, a peace loving country that has never invaded another in it's history. India may have a lot of poor people, but it's heart is in the right place. Pakistan is a wretch of a nation, devious, cunning and frothing at again a notion that it is the true inheritor to rule India. It's willing to destroy itself if it helps to destroy India. It's willing to proliferate, be used by the US, China or any power that may help it in it's goal to decimate India in any way. Terror is a great instrument as Pakistan has lost all wars against India on the battlefield. It's for a reason that Pakistan shouts loudly for Indian troop withdrawal from the border. Indian troops along the border are to prevent infiltration of followers that want to create terror in Kashmir or elsewhere. They are not there to attack Pakistan. Many Westerners are taken in by the devious propaganda doled out by the Pakistani's. They are inveterate liars and the most disgusting specimens on the face of this planet.

    July 12, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Reply
    • Amrullah Yousafzai in Mingora,Swat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (NWFP)

      The "disgusting specimens" are the ugly black hanuman-faced bhaRATis who drink gau jal and swim in the excrement and disease infestd ganga.
      Like these black bhaRATi ramrams, collecting gau jal:


      July 12, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Reply
      • Mesier

        Big deal. Lot of old cultures had folks that drank this stuff. Mohamed preached his followers to drink Camel urine. And what's that about "Black"? Anything wrong with dark skin? Here's 3 cheers for Camel Urine:


        July 13, 2011 at 1:59 am |
    • Amrullah Yousafzai in Mingora,Swat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (NWFP)

      Pakistan may not be a prosperous countries, but saying India is better and is prospering is absurd.
      India has almost double the poverty rate as Pakistan.

      In India 41.6% of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day while in Pakistan the corresponding percentage is 22.5%. India is also the worst ranking Asian country on the by its hunger rate... .

      wikipedia. org/wiki/File:GHI2010_Severity_Map.jpg

      This is especially surprising as Pakistan is mostly desert and India is green lands but Pakistan still has a lower hunger statistics than the glorious black hanuman-faced bhaRATis.

      But of course the one thing that the black hanuman-faced bhaRATis have that we don't is Gau Jal, the greatest drink in the world. Which we'll never have in a million years, and we pakis are so jealous of that.

      If you don't know what "gau Jal" is search for it on your search engine

      July 12, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Reply
  7. Amrullah Yousafzai in Mingora,Swat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (NWFP)

    You yanks are stupid think you will win the war by invading and occupying, as you are creating more and more enemies for yourself everyday which will come back to bite you in 10,20 years if you continue on the same path.





    July 12, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Reply
    • Mesier

      A plump, fat Pashto girl doing a bollywood type jig is what really gets the goat of the literal Islamic. I agree with the Taliban, Al Qaeda that according to Islam this is Haraam. They bomb CD and Music shops precisely for this reason. It's haraam in Islam. So the bigger question is who is the more pious Muslim? The one who endorses the above or the one who calls it haraam. Obviously the former. That's where the Moderate kind of Muslim is lying to the average person who doesn't know about Islam that it's a religion of tolerance and peace. Taliban and AQ make no such bones or fuss. They plainly endorse the literal version.

      July 13, 2011 at 4:38 am | Reply
      • Mesier

        Correction in athe aboce for implying the former. Meant the latter who calls it haraam is the more pious. And in a declared Islamic State the more pious will always prevail over the less pious. Law of nature and doctrine.

        July 13, 2011 at 4:41 am |
  8. Amrullah Yousafzai in Mingora,Swat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (NWFP)

    There was no violence in Pakistan before 2004 when Americans started attacking.

    The violence increased greatly after the summer of 2007 with Red Mosque Siege.

    Pakistan's crime rate in the 1990s was lower than US crime rate of the time.

    It's because of this so-called war on terror which is really just an extension of the great game and cold war to gain control of central Asia, that violence has increased.

    July 12, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Reply
    • Mesier

      A country that perpetuatedpossibly the biggest genocide post WW2 in East Pakistan says that there was no violence before 2004? As i mentioned only the worst specimens of hypocracy and untruth would lie so blatantly through their teeth:


      July 13, 2011 at 2:04 am | Reply
  9. Rsingh

    Before the advent of internet and Private news channel, had you asked any Indian kid what were Air force's best fighters they would probably say, Mig21, that to because they were always in news owing to their high accidents rates. They had no clue about Mig29s and Mirage 2000s
    Now if you ask the same question to an Pakistani kid , his answer would be F16. Pakistani Kid would say that they would use F16s to bomb India. In Pakistan kid from a very early stage indoctrinated that Killing Kafir is no sign. So if Pakistani middle class kid take up terrorism then it does not come as surprise. Pakistani cricket team's captain Shahid afridi had no qualms stating that his cousin brother was terrorist , who died figthing Indian forces in Kashmir.

    Best way to control this problem would be stopping all aid to Pakistan so that they would understand they cannot two time the Americans, and their standard of living is not owing to their hard work but owing to billions of dollars which been poured into Pakistan since 50s. Till now according to American figures US has given over 25-30 billion dollars in direct aid.

    July 13, 2011 at 1:05 am | Reply
  10. bobalu

    If you are poor and living in Pakistan you are likely working long hours and worrying about getting food on the table and a roof over your head. You do not have the time to waste obsessing over a warped interpretation of a religion. You do not have the time to be reading the sensational and dishonest Pakistani media. You do not have time to sit on your @ss and listen or right ignorant propaganda on the web. Pakistan's problems have never been with the poor and working classes. They want a better life. They want to be educated. It is the middle and upper class corrupt elites that have kept the working class down and the country backwards. It is theim who refuse to accept the responsibity for the failures. It is them who look for "outsiders" to blame. It is them who continue to ruin their country.

    July 13, 2011 at 10:29 am | Reply
  11. Saleem+H.+Ali

    Here is my response to this article, linked on my Newsvine blog


    July 15, 2011 at 9:15 am | Reply

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