Survey says: stop backing Musharraf
ISLAMABAD // The US government is pressing the new Pakistani civilian administration to back off efforts to remove Pervez Musharraf from the presidency. But if the United States truly wanted to shore up democracy and help fight terrorism inside Pakistan, it would pursue the exactly opposite policy: the United States should publicly back the immediate removal of Mr Musharraf. A new public opinion survey shows why.
More than the ailing economy, the survey, conducted by Terror Free Tomorrow in collaboration with the New America Foundation and the Pakistan Institute for Public Opinion, revealed that the most important priority for Pakistanis is an independent judiciary, with 93 per cent of Pakistanis polled saying so. Last year, Mr Musharraf fired and arrested key members of the judiciary to try to quash any judicial opposition to his election.
Mr Musharraf, backed by the United States, is still seen as the prime obstacle to the restoration of independent judges and the rule of law. This is the issue most important to residents, and the result is that more than three-quarters of Pakistanis want Mr Musharraf immediately removed from office. However, the coalition government's two main parties, the Pakistan People's Party and the PML-N, remain divided over Mr Musharraf's future, with the United States - which sees Mr Musharraf as a key ally in its war against extremists - said to be leaning on the PPP to slow down efforts to unseat the president.
The survey, which was released last month, polled 1,306 Pakistanis aged 18 or older across 131 urban and rural sampling points in all four provinces of Pakistan, and has a plus or minus three per cent margin of error. The results showed that Pakistani opinion of Mr Musharraf had sunk to its lowest level, and also that Mr Musharraf's future is a decision for Pakistanis alone to determine, not the US government.
At the same time, favourable opinion toward al Qa'eda is mounting. One-third of Pakistanis now voice a positive view, nearly double the percentage in a poll earlier this year. Significantly, when asked who was most responsible for the violence that is occurring in Pakistan today, most blame the United States; only eight per cent said al Qa'eda fighters. There is also almost no level of trust in US motives. Three-quarters of Pakistanis said the real purpose of the US-led war on terrorism is to weaken the Muslim world and dominate Pakistan.
Despite the recent spate of suicide bombings that have shaken Pakistan and which are attributable to al Qa'eda and the Taliban, 44 per cent of Pakistanis see the United States as posing the greatest threat to their personal safety. Its traditional enemy, India, is next at 14 per cent. By contrast, far less than 10 per cent said they feel al Qa'eda and the Taliban constitute any threat. These are alarming findings. Pakistanis simply do not consider al Qa'eda their enemy, rather, it is the United States.
Al Qa'eda's considerable goodwill inside Pakistan is generated by its perceived goals, which Pakistanis told the pollsters they largely share. More than anything else, Pakistanis think that standing up to the United States is the aim of Osama bin Laden and his terrorism network - and six out of every 10 respondents said they agree with that goal. The poll was conducted before US military strikes last month killed 11 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan-Pakistan border. So the level of anti-US sentiment now is likely to be even higher.
Pakistan is considered by US national security officials to be the home base of bin Laden, al Qa'eda and many Taliban fighters. From a safe haven in the border areas, fighters are free to train, plan and launch attacks inside Afghanistan and elsewhere. Indeed, last week, Adm Michael Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said plans for another terrorist attack against the United States are under way - and that the attack would come from Pakistan.
Yet the policy of the United States is to back, seemingly at all costs, the increasingly unpopular and isolated Mr Musharraf, and sink US popularity even further - while raising the appeal of al Qa'eda and the Taliban. If George W Bush, the US president, and the US government made a forceful and decisive break with Mr Musharraf, it would be the single most important, immediate step Washington could take to restore some measure of goodwill among the Pakistani people, and regain the initiative against terrorists.
Pakistanis long to see the United States in a better light. Two-thirds - including bin Laden supporters - said policies ranging from US business investment, free trade, educational aid, disaster assistance, medical care and training and increased US visas for Pakistanis, would significantly improve their opinion of the United States. The surveys show that regardless of the growing discontent, the number of Pakistanis who are now willing to view the United States more positively is higher than at any other time in the past year.
The path ahead is clear. There is no popular mandate inside Pakistan for going after al Qa'eda and the Taliban. For any Pakistani government, particularly a democratically elected one, military action is almost a non-starter - and unilateral US military action could trigger even greater instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan. US policy needs to be perceived as on the side of ordinary Pakistanis. For only when Pakistanis see al Qa'eda as their enemy, too, and the United States as, if not their friend then at least not their enemy, will al Qa'eda's days inside Pakistan finally be numbered.
A good start would be for the United States at last to end its support for Mr Musharraf. Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Kenneth Ballen is the president of Terror Free Tomorrow.