Last week the International Republican Institute released a particularly disheartening poll of attitudes and opinions held by the the Pakistani public. This poll that took place during the second half of October shows an increasing pessimism amongst average Pakistanis. Eighty Eight (88) percent of Pakistanis feel that the country is heading in the wrong direction and and 59 percent expect that their economic situation will get worse in the upcoming year. Over the past year of polling in Pakistan the trend on both of these questions has been markedly upwards. Not surprisingly, after a spate of serious bombings and killings that have occurred recently in the country, 78 percent of respondents did not feel any more secure this year than last.
Another particularly striking result was an open-ended question asking who was responsible for the September 20th suicide bombing at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. Although 50 percent of respondents said that they didn’t know, the next highest response, was the United States (20 percent). Thirteen (13) percent responded that the government of Pakistan was responsible. Only 2 percent felt that terrorists were to blame. Although many point out that conspiracy theories are a national past time in Pakistan, this statistic raises serious concerns about public opinion of the US in the current struggle.
What is equally concerning is the view of the current government, democratically elected last February. In June, 41 percent approved of the job the government was doing. In October, this fell to 21 percent. Sixty seven (67) percent of respondents felt that things would not get better in Pakistan now that there is a democratically elected government. This is particularly concerning because Pakistan has a troubled history of public acceptance of military intervention in the government, most recently with the 1999 coup by General Musharraf. Considering that history, these poll results are an ominous warning sign.
Of course with all of the negative news about the recent violence in Pakistan and the increased tensions with India, one might be tempted to point to those factors when explaining this public pessimism. This poll, however, paints a very different picture. In Pakistan, just as in the US, the political maxim holds: it’s the economy, stupid! When asked what is the top problem facing the country, 58 percent said inflation, twelve percent said unemployment, and only 10 percent said suicide bombings.
So, what does this mean for US policy towards Pakistan and the region? As Raj pointed out yesterday, we need to have a regional strategy that takes into account Afghanistan and India. However, these poll results point out that if we want the democratically elected government of Pakistan to play a more decisive role, the US might want to pay a bit more attention to the concerns of the Pakistani people who elected that government. Granted, one of the few positive results was that the percentage of people who believed that Pakistan should cooperate with the US in its war on terror increased from 15 percent in June 2008 to 28 percent in October. Still, 28 percent support is a losing proposition in a country that is a key front in the ill-named “war on terror”.
If we assume that in the long run US policy in the region is much better off with a democratic Pakistan – and I strongly believe that it is – then we need to take a close look at the economic concerns of the Pakistani populace. Otherwise, we may wake up to find in the near future another Musharraf ready to take the reins in this volatile country.
The good news is that President-elect Obama has been a strong supporter of the bipartisan Biden-Lugar legislation that proposed 7.5 billion dollars in new economic assistance to the people of Pakistan over 5 years and increased accountability for future military aid. This type of long-term assistance would be a powerful symbol to the Pakistani public that America’s intentions are closely in line with their interests. It also could help the fledgling democratic government address the economic concerns that dominate the worries of the Pakistani public.
The bad news is that the Biden-Lugar legislation didn’t pass last year. Although passage of this type of legislation will surely be a priority for the Obama administration, the clock is ticking. The question for me is not whether or not these important policy changes will be made, but rather, can they be done quickly enough to make a difference?