May 10th, 2013
10:54 AM ET

What Pakistan thinks

By Richard Wike, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Richard Wike is associate director at the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. You can follow him @RichardWike. The views expressed are his own.

Last Saturday, three people were killed and more than 30 injured when two bombs exploded near the headquarters of the Muttahida Quami Movement, or MQM, a leading political party in Karachi, Pakistan. It was yet another tragic incident in a campaign season plagued by violence that has seen dozens killed. As the country prepares for this weekend’s elections, the Taliban has significantly stepped up its attacks. And no matter which party emerges victorious from the May 11 poll, it will have to answer to a public that is increasingly worried about the threat extremism poses to the Pakistani state.

Pakistani fears about extremism had actually been on the wane over the last few years. The high mark of concern was 2009, when the Taliban gained control of the Swat Valley and neighboring areas within 100 miles of the nation’s capital Islamabad. In a spring 2009 Pew Research Center poll, 57 percent of Pakistanis described the Taliban as a very serious threat to the country. But after the Pakistani military forced a Taliban retreat, fears declined, and by 2012 a little more than a third of Pakistanis held this view.

Today, however, the upsurge in violence is leading to an increase in fear. In a new Pew Research poll conducted this March, almost half say the Taliban is a very serious threat. And perhaps most tellingly, for the first time, worries about the Taliban are essentially as high as worries about India, long considered by Pakistanis to be the country’s biggest threat.

Nearly all of those surveyed – 98 percent – call terrorism a big problem, while 93 percent say it is a very big problem. More than six-in-ten, meanwhile, are concerned that extremists could take over the country – the highest level registered since 2009.

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Of course, extremism is hardly Pakistan’s only problem as people go to the polls. The economy is widely seen as struggling, and complaints about political corruption are pervasive. Overall, 91 percent believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, while about eight-in-ten Pakistanis view President Asif Ali Zardari unfavorably; his ruling Pakistan Peoples Party is expected to lose power in the election.

Many observers believe the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will win the most seats in this weekend’s election, although Tehreek-e-Insaf, the party of former cricket star Imran Khan, is also expected to do well. Certainly, the current Pew Research poll finds both performing well, with two-thirds saying they have a favorable view of Sharif, and 60 percent saying they have a positive view of Khan. Still, it’s unclear whether this popularity will translate into votes in Pakistan’s multi-party parliamentary elections.

Regardless of the outcome, the winner will face a public that is both increasingly concerned about extremism and divided over what to do about it. The reality is that there is no consensus over how to use the nation’s military in the fight against extremists.  While 35 percent support using the Pakistani army to battle extremist organizations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, regions where such groups are particularly active, more than half either oppose this idea, or else are uncertain.

Meanwhile, there is limited enthusiasm for working with the United States in this fight. More than half would like to see the U.S. supply financial and humanitarian aid to areas where extremist groups are active, although only one in five support the idea of the U.S. conducting drone strikes in conjunction with the Pakistani government.

More broadly, though, America’s image in Pakistan is overwhelmingly negative: Just 11 percent of Pakistanis view the U.S. positively. Such anti-Americanism in Pakistan is nothing new, but high-profile events in recent years, such as the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden and the Raymond Davis affair, in which a CIA contractor killed two Pakistani men in Lahore, have only served to deepen these sentiments.

In Pakistan, there is a general distrust of American power and widespread opposition to U.S. foreign policies, including the war in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistanis may be worried about extremism, but this does not mean that they want to U.S. to continue its fight against extremists in Afghanistan.

The winner of Saturday’s election will face a formidable set of challenges, including a poor economy, a political system riddled with corruption, and a strained relationship with the world’s most powerful nation. And if the violence of recent weeks continues, the extremist threat could very well rise to the top of the new government’s agenda.

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Topics: Elections • Pakistan

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    When it comes to defining terror what the author and many western analysts clearly miss is this ominous fact.

    Yes, Pakistan (its army, its govt) as also common Pakistanis see terror as a major threat,

    They ABSOLUTELY DO NOT want to break the backbone of terrorism, and in fact actually aid & nurture them to use them as strategic assets in their fight against the US and India.

    Likewise while Pakistanis vociferously protest all real & perceived atrocities by the west against the Muslim world there is NOT even a WHIMPER OF PROTESTS at the daily killings that go on.

    No wonder Hillary Clinton on a visit to India in 2010 said

    "YOU CAN'T KEEP SNAKES IN YOUR BACKGROUND & EXPECT IT TO BITE ONLY YOUR NEIGBHORS"

    With regards to US AID, even faced with natural calamities as the recent Floods, and earthquake Pakistan has always wanted ONLY HARD CASH, most of which is pocketed by their corrupt politicians, with remaining going to beef up their army, and add to their STOCKPILE OF ISLAMIC BOMBS. In return common Pakistanis blame the US for corrupting their govt. and funding to fight their wars.
    In fact in response to the Kerry-Lugar bill tripling aid to Pakistan, a leading Pakistani Nuclear physicist and a Fulbright scholar Dr.Pervez Hoodbhoy had remarked "Anti-US sentiment in Pakistan rises in proportion to aid received. Kerry-Lugar’s $7.5 billion may well have been money that the US wants to steal from Pakistan rather than give to it; Although Pakistan & US are formal allies, the US has ousted India as Pakistan’s number one enemy.”

    Havimng said that, THERE IS NO WAY AMERICA CAN EVER WIN THE HEARTS & MINDS OF PAKISTANIS, or for that matter THE ENTIRE MUSLIM WORLD.

    Self styled Muslim moderates (but in reality COVERT ISLAMISTS) such as CNN's own Mr. FAREED ZAKARIA are making it that much harder by blaming America for most of the ills facing the Muslim world or even Muslim communities right here in America......and.........

    Ofcourse that includes ISLAMIC TERROR!!!

    May 10, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Reply
  2. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    Here's a CORRECTED VERSION.

    When it comes to defining terror what the author and many western analysts clearly miss is this ominous fact:

    That, Yes, Pakistan (its army, its govt) as also common Pakistanis see terror as a major threat…..but

    They ABSOLUTELY DO NOT want to do anything to break the backbone of terrorism, and in fact actually aid & nurture terrorists to use them as strategic assets in their NEVER ENDING fight against the US and India.

    Likewise while Pakistanis vociferously protest all real & perceived atrocities by the west against the Muslim world, there is NOT even a WHIMPER OF PROTESTS at the daily killings that goes on!

    No wonder Hillary Clinton on a visit to India in 2010 said

    "YOU CAN'T KEEP SNAKES IN YOUR BACKGROUND & EXPECT IT TO BITE ONLY YOUR NEIGBHORS"

    With regards to US AID, even faced with natural calamities as the recent Floods, and Earthquake Pakistan has always wanted ONLY HARD CASH, most of which is pocketed by their corrupt politicians, with the remaining going to beef up their army, and add to their STOCKPILE OF ISLAMIC BOMBS.

    In return common Pakistanis blame the US for corrupting their govt. and funding to fight their wars.

    In fact in response to the Kerry-Lugar bill tripling aid to Pakistan, a leading Pakistani Nuclear physicist and a Fulbright scholar Dr.Pervez Hoodbhoy had remarked:

    "ANTI-US SENTIMENT IN PAKISTAN RAISES IN PROPORTION TO AID RECEIVED. Kerry-Lugar’s $7.5 billion may well have been money that the US wants to steal from Pakistan rather than give to it; Although Pakistan & US are formal allies, the US HAS OUSTED INDIA AS PAKISTAN’s NUMBER ONE ENEMY!”

    Having said that, THERE IS NO WAY AMERICA CAN EVER WIN THE HEARTS & MINDS OF PAKISTANIS, or for that matter A VAST MAJORITY OF THE MUSLIM WORLD, given that even:

    Self styled Muslim moderates (but in reality COVERT ISLAMISTS) such as CNN's own Mr. FAREED ZAKARIA are making it that much harder by blaming America for most of the ills facing the Muslim world or even Muslim communities right here in America......and.........

    Ofcourse that includes ISLAMIC TERROR!!!

    May 10, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      In fact Amit, if the Pakistanis would get rid of these clowns who carry out orders from those goons in Washington, the corrupt politicians, and sue the Taliban for peace, they would be far better off!

      May 12, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    The outcome of this election is going to be quite unpredictable owing to the high number of first time voters. Many of these 40 million young Pakistanis want that their votes count. The Taliban have intimidated candidates of liberal and secular parties in this campaign, while leaving Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif in peace. These two men are in tight race and might emerge as winners, but not strong enough to form government.

    May 10, 2013 at 4:37 pm | Reply
  4. Here's what Pakis think

    "Hmm...........If I put the hind legs of the sheep in my boots next time, maybe I won't get kicked."

    May 10, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Reply
  5. Patrick

    What the Pakistanis need to do is to vote out this clown Zardari and replace him with either Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan. At least Sharif has promised to quit taking orders from Washington and sue the Taliban for peace while Khan said that he would oppose those cursed drone strikes hurling 500 lb. bombs on defenseless people in the northwestern part of that country. Both need to be done!

    May 12, 2013 at 4:52 pm | Reply
  6. SAS

    Close to three thousand Pakistani civilians have lost their lives as a result of drone strikes by the Obama administration, which insists that no civilians have died – a blatant lie.

    Why is Pakistani resentment of US power difficult to understand ?

    May 14, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Reply

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