Life After Musharraf

Now that Pervez Musharraf has resigned, a new question has come up for the U.S. presidential candidates: Will America change its policies towards Pakistan? Will there be a true investigation into Benazir Bhutto’s assassination? If you ask me, the answer is a resounding no. But new polling from Pakistan might force the U.S. State Department to rethink this issue.

From Foreign Policy In Focus:

A poll conducted at the end of May 2008 by the Pakistan Institute for Public Opinion for the U.S. groups Terror Free Tomorrow and the New America Foundation revealed the intensity of public opposition to American policies. The poll found that 60% of Pakistanis believe the U.S. “war on terror” seeks to weaken the Muslim world, and 15% think its goal is to “ensure US domination over Pakistan.” About one-third of Pakistanis now have a positive view of al-Qaeda, twice as many as think positively of the United States.

The poll revealed that 44% of Pakistanis believe the United States is the greatest threat to their personal safety (India is a distant second at 14%). The Pakistani Taliban, who are now organized into the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (the Taliban Movement of Pakistan) and by some estimates have up to 40,000 fighters, are seen as a threat by less than 10%. Al-Qaeda barely registers as a threat, slightly surpassing Pakistan’s own military and Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI).

Similarly, when asked who was most responsible for violence in Pakistan today, the poll found that over 50% of Pakistanis blame the United States. About 10% blame respectively India and the Pakistan army (and ISI). The Pakistani Taliban was blamed by less than 5%.

In April 2008, the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center reported that Pakistan suffered 1,335 fatalities from terrorist attacks in 2007; other estimates are higher. Half these attacks came in FATA. In 2008, these attacks have continued and spread across the North-West Frontier Province. One attack in January killed over 50 people and wounded almost 150 while they were praying in a mosque. Taliban fighters have captured towns and villages and threaten Peshawar, the provincial capital. They have sought to enforce their version of Sharia law, setting up courts, carrying out public executions, blowing up girls’ schools, harassing women, destroying video shops, and even threatening barbers who offer shaves.

Pakistan’s elected government is struggling to deal with a crisis that it has inherited from the past seven years of U.S. policy and military rule. It has tried to talk to and fight the militants at the same time. But the repeated breakdowns of cease-fires negotiated with various militant groups and the bombing in the heart of Islamabad on the anniversary of the siege of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) show that this strategy is not working. There are also suspicions that elements within the Pakistan army and ISI are still sympathetic to the militants.

A way forward is not clear. But the first step must be for Washington to consider how its policies in the “war on terror,” in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan have failed and now feed public animosity in Pakistan toward the United States and support for the Islamist militancy. For its part, Pakistan needs to have a national conversation on what kind of future it wants, whether it wishes to become the kind of savage and ignorant society that the Taliban offer, and if not, how to confront the Islamist threat.

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