The South Asia Channel

America’s image problem in Pakistan

America’s image problem in Pakistan

Drones have been the tactic of choice in targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) in the past few years. The strikes have increased significantly under President Obama’s administration, with the New America Foundation noting 79 reported attacks in 2010 so far compared to 53 in all of 2009. In September alone, the CIA reportedly conducted 22 drone strikes, “the most ever in a single month and more than twice its monthly average.”

The tactic, despite killing at least around 380 militants this year (high estimates suggest about 620), is immensely unpopular among Pakistanis, and has contributed to rising anti-American sentiment in the country. On Thursday, the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow released a new poll highlighting perceptions in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The poll consisted of face-to-face interviews conducted from June 30 to July 20 with of 1,000 residents age 18 or older across 120 villages/sampling points in all seven tribal agencies, with a margin of error of +/- 3 percent.

According to the findings, about three-quarters (70.8 percent) of FATA residents polled oppose U.S. drone strikes; with 47.8 percent of the respondents saying the strikes kill civilians (only 16.2 percent say they accurately kill militants). Moreover, 9 out of 10 people in FATA oppose the U.S. military pursuing al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan, a further reflection of the nationwide opposition to a U.S. military presence in the country (as also indicated in the latest Pew Research Center poll, conducted in April 2010).

However, critically, these findings don’t translate to a support for al-Qaeda or the Taliban. On the contrary, more than three-quarters of FATA residents polled oppose al-Qaeda’s presence in the region, with more than two-thirds opposing the Pakistan Taliban. According to New America Foundation, “Indeed, if al-Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban were on the ballot in an election, less than one percent of FATA residents said they would vote for either group.” Instead, the majority of those polled in FATA responded positively in favor of the Pakistani military, with about 83 percent responding that they had a favorable opinion of the Pakistani Army, and the most popular individual among those polled was General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Pakistani Army Chief of Staff.

This poll’s findings are significant when compared to the oft-cited survey by the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy conducted in 2009, in which 52 percent of the 550 respondents in the tribal areas said they believe drone strikes are accurate, leading many to conclude that residents in FATA were actually in favor of drone strikes, despite nationwide anger indicating the contrary.

While no poll is entirely conclusive or without flaws, the latest poll by the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow is more methodologically comprehensive than preceding surveys, which used admittedly informal techniques. Moreover, these statistics should serve as a means to understand trends and analyze the nuances of Pakistani society, rather than as stand-alone facts and figures without any context. Attitudes, particularly those surrounding anti-American sentiment, are complex and not often rational or linear.

For example, although about 70 percent of FATA residents strongly oppose drone strikes by the U.S., 38 percent of respondents said the Pakistani military should launch its own drone attacks against militants in the FATA (34 percent said they should not use drones). Therefore, the public’s approval of drones splits if the attacks were instead carried out by the Pakistani Army, thereby reflecting a very fundamental point – many people aren’t against the drone tactic itself, but the policy, as well as the perception of the United States as a military aggressor in Pakistan.

According to Moeed Yusuf, a South Asia Advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace, this poll further reflects a deep mistrust of the United States, which stems from a belief “that this superpower uses force to settle its problems.” Despite the billions of dollars in non-military aid funneled into Pakistan from the United States, Pakistani citizens continue to primarily view America through a security lens. “This is unlikely to change,” noted Yusuf, “even if many of the FATA respondents said that their views of the United States would improve if the U.S. increased visas for residents and educational scholarships to America.” Financial and economic incentives will not change overall perceptions as long as the American security policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan continues, he emphasized.

Cyril Almeida, an assistant editor and columnist at Dawn, echoed, “Anti-Americanism is deep and pervasive. To the uninitiated, the Pakistani desire for a U.S. visa/passport/job may seem like tacit approval of what America stands for and aspires to achieve through its foreign policy.” However, he noted, this would be a wrong assumption. “The personal (economic advantage that may be gained) is very different from the political (intense opposition to U.S. foreign policy). And this contradiction is not specific to the Pakistani condition,” but is reflected elsewhere in the Muslim world.

As the use of drones continue unabated in Pakistan, and tensions are further exacerbated by news of NATO helicopters crossing into Pakistani territory killing Pakistani soldiers late last week, anti-American sentiment will only continue to rise, despite billions of dollars of aid being promised to local civil society, and despite American efforts in the recent flood disaster. The purpose of these polls and surveys, therefore, is not to simplify the Pakistani psyche, but to comprehend this image deficit. If the United States is truly concerned with anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, and its security implications, then such data can provide insight.

Kalsoom Lakhani is the director of Social Vision, the strategic philanthropy arm of ML Resources in Washington, D.C. She is from Islamabad, Pakistan, and blogs at CHUP, or Changing Up Pakistan.