Understanding the negative ratings that Pakistanis surveyed by a poll released today by Pew gave to the United States requires a careful study of the very recent history of Pakistan’s relations with two leading NATO members — the United States and the United Kingdom.
The survey finds that only 17 percent of Pakistanis view the U.S favorably. Roughly six-in-ten Pakistanis describe the U.S. as an enemy, while a paltry 11 percent accept the U.S. as a partner. And support for U.S. involvement in the fight against extremists in Pakistan’s northwest has waned over the last year. Fewer Pakistanis now want the U.S. to provide financial and humanitarian aid to areas where extremist groups operate, or for the U.S. to provide intelligence and logistical support to Pakistani troops fighting extremists, although about half of those surveyed still favor these efforts.
Although the Pew survey was conducted several months ago, let’s examine what happened within the week or so before the report was released. On July 19, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton insisted in Islamabad that Osama bin Laden is hiding in Pakistan as is Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban. Even as she announced $500 million of aid for Pakistan, she called on Pakistan to take "additional steps" to combat militancy.
Then on July 27, after the whistleblower site WikiLeaks flooded the internet and media outlets with more than 90,000 U.S. military documents about Afghanistan and Pakistan, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, attempted to control the damage by phoning Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the head of the Pakistani Army. But by stating that, "We can’t get at the safe havens that we know exist in Pakistan without their [Pakistani] cooperation," Adm. Mullen focused on Pakistan’s centrality to Afghanistan, implicitly suggesting that the U.S. interest in Pakistan is driven more by immediate need than a true trust of the country.
As if that were not enough, British Prime Minister David Cameron just kicked off another diplomatic offensive against Pakistan. "We cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that [Pakistan] is allowed to look both ways and is able in any way to promote the export of terror, whether to India or whether to Afghanistan, or anywhere else in the world," Cameron said during a speech in Bangalore, India on July 29. "And it’s well documented that that has been the case in the past and it’s an issue that we have to make sure that the Pakistan authorities are not looking two ways," he added.
That the British premier chose to express this damning public criticism of ‘Pakistan’s duality’ on the Indian soil following the disclosure of documents from WikiLeaks describing Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban, which prompted the Afghan President Hamid Karzai to demand NATO action against terrorist havens in Pakistan, was reason enough to invite flak from the Pakistani government. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said his government would take up Cameron’s comments via diplomatic channels.
And Pakistani officials, overwhelmed with the aftermath of yesterday’s fatal plane crash just a couple of kilometers away from Islamabad and with the deadly and destructive floods all over the country on Thursday, rebuked Cameron for his comments.
And this week, not a particularly uncommon one, precisely explains why the U.S. and the U.K. suffer poor ratings in Pakistan
Many Pakistanis still seem skeptical when they come across allegations and aspersions on their country and its institutions. The Pew poll shows that 84 percent of Pakistanis surveyed think the Pakistani military has a good influence on the way things are going in the country. Many newspaper columnists and lead television anchors have questioned the string of comments from Western officials, highlighted by the WikiLeaks disclosures.
"What Admiral Mullen and Cameron essentially said underlines their continued mistrust of Pakistan," commented Haroon Rasheed, one of the most read columnists in the mass circulation daily JANG. "They basically refuse to appreciate the turmoil and the cost that the war on terror has piled up on Pakistan," Rasheed said. That is why most Pakistanis will likely remain skeptical particularly of the United States, he insisted.
Unless the sustained campaign of allegations comes to an end, most Pakistanis will keep viewing the United States with mistrust, argued Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed, a professor of international relations at Islamabad’s Quaid-e Azam University.
Given Gilani’s defiant response to Cameron emphasizing Pakistan’s contributions to the anti-terror war and to Clinton stating that bin Laden and Mullah Omar are not in fact in Pakistan, mutual suspicions, it seems, are likely to continue dogging the Pakistan-U.S. and Pakistan-U.K. relationships. If no conscious, concerted damage control is undertaken, Pakistani suspicions will also continue overshadowing the $1.5 billion a year civilian assistance that Washington has promised to Pakistan. By implication, U.S. popularity in the country will continue to suffer.
Imtiaz Gul heads the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad and is the author of The Most Dangerous Place (Viking Penguin USA).