ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – The prospect of Islamist militants destabilizing nuclear-armed Pakistan is a global fear, but only 10 percent of Pakistanis saw terrorism as their biggest worry, according to an opinion poll released on Monday.
For the vast majority economic issues such as inflation, unemployment and poverty were a greater problem, according to a survey by the International Republican Institute (IRI), a Washington-based organization chaired by Senator John McCain.
Carried out in March, some of the survey’s results have been overtaken by the pace of events in Pakistan, where the army launched an offensive in recent weeks in and around the Swat valley after Taliban militants moved stealthily closer to Islamabad.
Having sought a deal with the militants by agreeing to impose sharia, Islamic law, across a large chunk of the northwest, the government unleashed the army after sensing a change in national mood as more people realized the Taliban would not be appeased.
Though arguably out of date, IRI’s findings still revealed how conflicted Pakistanis have become in their views, and the scale of the challenge the government has faced trying to win support for its counter-terrorism strategy.
Even though 69 percent of people saw the presence of al Qaeda and the Taliban as a problem, 52 percent opposed using the army to fight extremists in North West Frontier Province and neighboring tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.
ACCEPTANCE FOR SHARIA
The survey showed 80 percent of people supported the deal to introduce sharia in Swat and neighboring parts of the northwest, and most had expected it to bring peace.
Moreover, 56 percent of Pakistanis said they would back any future Taliban demand for sharia in cities outside the northwest, including Karachi, Quetta, Multan and Lahore.
There were, however, some signs of a sea change over whether Pakistan should cooperate with the United States in counter-terrorism, with 37 percent of people saying there should be cooperation, compared with 9 percent 15 months earlier.
The poll showed President Asif Ali Zardari was laboring with a lowly approval rating of just 19 percent.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who appeals to a religious conservative constituency and has tended to equivocate over the need to use force against the militants, was the most popular, with 75 percent support.
LOOKING AT INDIA POST-MUMBAI
There was an intriguing split in attitudes toward India, with 45 percent having a favorable opinion of India, and 52 percent unfavorable.
A five-year-old peace process between South Asia’s nuclear-armed neighbors was frozen after militants attacked the Indian city of Mumbai killing 166 people last November.
Even though the Pakistan government has confirmed the gunmen were Pakistanis and arrested members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group fighting against Indian rule in Kashmir, 78 percent of Pakistanis did not believe Lashkar was responsible.
There was a clean split in attitudes toward Lashkar with 43 percent having a favorable opinion of a group already placed on U.S. and U.N. terrorist lists, and 46 percent holding an unfavorable opinion.
Conspiracy theories abound in Pakistan, and the poll showed 42 percent of Pakistanis believe Indian intelligence carried out the attack on Mumbai, while 20 percent thought the United States was to blame.