At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this morning, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke repeatedly referred to a recent opinion poll of Pakistanis conducted by the International Republican Institute. So what’s it say?
Conducted between March 7 and 30, it’s a grim one from an American perspective. More Pakistanis believe the United States was behind last year’s Mumbai terrorist attacks (20 percent) than believe the Pakistani anti-Indian terrorist group Lashkar e-Toiba — whom India accuses of culpability in the mass murder — was responsible (seven percent). As Holbrooke stated, there’s a strong base of support for the Swat deal that left the Taliban effectively in charge of the Swat Valley, with 80 percent backing it and 74 percent believing it will bring peace to the region, which it manifestly didn’t. Over half of Pakistani respondents, 56 percent, support similar accomodations with the Taliban “in areas such as Karachi, Multan, Quetta or Lahore.”
Support for President Asif Ali Zardari is a dismal 19 percent, which is unchanged since IRI’s previous poll from last October. His opposition, Nawaz Sharif, has skyrocketed from a 15 percent favorability rating to 75 percent. I suppose it’s fair to say that the Pakistanis are looking for a civilian savior after disillusionment with Zardari — and it’s worth noting that this poll was conducted amidst Sharif’s “Long March” standoff with the president — since 77 percent of Pakistanis prefer an *unprosperous *democracy to a military dictatorship that provides peace, land and bread. Perhaps that’s why Holbrooke talked more this morning about supporting a generic Pakistani democracy than about supporting the Zardari government. (Did I mention that government has a *79 percent *disapproval rating?)
From a counterinsurgency perspective, this might be the most important finding in the poll:
When asked if they felt that their economic well being would improve or worsen during the upcoming year, the number saying that they thought it would improve increased 15 points to 29 percent, while the number saying that they thought their economic situation would worsen dropped 23 points to 36 percent, as compared to the October 2008 poll. Although the majority of Pakistanis’ still felt pessimistic about their economic future, this gap has closed considerably.
Hope is a funny thing in counterinsurgency. It raises expectations and introduces an element of impatience with the gap between desire and reality. Counterinsurgents have to move expeditiously to match them, and that can explain Holbrooke’s fervent endorsement of the Kerry-Lugar Senate aid bill for Pakistan. That said, these are still dismal numbers the prospects for material improvement, and the refugee flows coming from the Pakistani counteroffensive against the Taliban can only provide more grist for perceptions of economic deterioration.