Center for American Progress

Pakistani Voters Are Not Yet on the Same Page with U.S. Policymakers

Pakistani Voters Are Not Yet on the Same Page with U.S. Policymakers

Pakistani voters are not on the same page with the U.S. in the war against terrorist networks, warn Caroline Wadhams and Colin Cookman

Historic parliamentary elections in Pakistan have ushered in new leadership, with U.S. policymakers now grappling with what the results mean for counterterrorism efforts and U.S. security interests. The new ruling coalition of the Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League-N has already indicated that they want to shift Pakistan’s terrorism strategy and begin a dialogue with the militants. This proposed shift in strategy by Pakistan’s new leaders reflects the Pakistani people’s deep discontent with the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” and with President Musharraf, who they believe has too closely followed a U.S. national security agenda.

The new ruling coalition will need to manage the Pakistani population’s opposition to the war on terror and deep suspicions about U.S. intentions. They also must address the fact that most Pakistanis do not see international terrorism as a top priority. The United States, too, must be mindful of these new Pakistani political realities. Consider the following public opinion and polling data.

An International Republican Institute (IRI) poll released in February 2008 found that 89 percent of Pakistanis did not believe that Pakistan should cooperate with the United States in its war against terrorist networks. A World Public Opinion-US Institute for Peace poll from January 2008 found that Pakistanis believed the U.S. military presence in the region to be more of a threat than Al Qaeda, and a full 86 percent of the Pakistani public stated that the United States aims to weaken and divide the Islamic world.

The IRI poll found that only 23 percent of Pakistanis believed that “Pakistan’s government should exert control over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas,” where Al Qaeda- and Taliban-affiliated militants operate. And 47 percent (more than any other chosen option) stated that “the government should not try to exert control over FATA, but should try to keep the peace through negotiating deals with local Taliban.”

The same political attitudes were evident on election day last month. For many Pakistanis, international terrorism simply was not on the top of their minds at the polling booth. According to the IRI poll, security issues such as terrorism (12 percent) and law and order (6 percent) were judged top priority by only 18 percent of the electorate. Instead, domestic issues dominated the Pakistani political calculus going into the elections. According to the IRI Poll, 76 percent considered issues like inflation (55 percent), unemployment (15 percent), and poverty (6 percent) as their primary determinant for which party they would choose.

The new political players in Pakistan will need to answer to their constituencies. That means U.S. policymakers must understand the Pakistani people’s priorities and perceptions of terrorism and of the United States if they hope to influence the new ruling parties to pursue counterterrorism efforts. The United States must make a sober, balanced analysis of the key issues that motivated the majority of Pakistani voters on election day and determine how it will create a more effective policy to curtail extremism and to win over Pakistani support. Here are the main factors to consider in Pakistan going forward.

Shortage of Basic Commodities Pakistanis labor under rising inflation and a shortage of basic commodities, such as wheat and fuel. Pakistan’s consumer price index in January 2008 showed a 12 percent increase from the previous year and the highest rate of inflation in five years. The Pakistani government’s biggest mistake was their overestimation of the 2007 wheat harvest. Their export of 500,000 tons this year created shortages of flour staples across the country and a commensurate rise in food prices. These shortages formed a major source of opposition to the Musharraf government, a fact which even some ministers in president Musharraf’s Pakistan Muslim League-Q party were willing to acknowledge following their defeat at the polls.

Anger with Inequitable Distribution of State Resources Pakistan has averaged steady economic growth of around 7 percent for the past five years, but the economic system remains highly stratified, with much of the gains going to an elite upper tier of Punjabis and former military officers who have benefited from President Musharraf’s privatization of some state-owned industries and a modest influx of foreign capital.

The economic spoils that have accrued to those close to Musharraf and his former ruling PML-Q party angered the people of Sindh, the home province of the PPP (the political party once led by assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto) and the economic heartland of the country. Sindh only receives a quarter of total government services, fueling resentment among the local population that resources are being extracted from the province with nothing in return. Sindh boasts natural gas and coal deposits, together with the country’s largest port and stock exchange, making the province the largest contributor of tax revenue to the state.

The province of Balochistan, like Sindh, has chafed under the Punjabi center’s rule. Resentment over resource extraction policies has fostered a growing insurgency against Islamabad’s rule, which has been exacerbated further by harsh military crackdowns on Baloch nationalist political parties and tribal leaders.

Balochistan is estimated to possess 19 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 6 trillion barrels of oil reserves, but contracts for exploration and drilling have been negotiated exclusively by the central government, with no voice for Baloch interests at the table. The International Crisis Group reports that “the National Finance Commission, the mechanism used by the centre to distribute federal grants to the provinces, is contentious because it is controlled by the federal government, and in the Balochistan context, because the main criterion for NFC awards is population.” Thus, it benefits Punjab over resource-rich but low-density provinces such as Balochistan.

The Pakistani military has responded harshly to the nascent Baloch separatist movement, arresting large numbers of dissidents and dividing nationalist parties through cooptation or in some cases targeted killings. Military operations have displaced large segments of the population; an internal UNICEF report from July-August 2006 estimated some 59,000 women and children were living in refugee camps.

There are also widespread reports of Baloch dissidents being ‘disappeared’ by members of the intelligence security services, ranging from an estimate of 170 as of December 2006 by the Human Rights Council of Pakistan to claims of as many as 12,000 from a member of the Jamhoori Watan Party, a Baloch nationalist party. Former Supreme Court of Pakistan Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry had opened investigations into these disappearances the day before he was deposed by President Musharraf in an extra-judicial declaration of emergency rule. Since its electoral victories, the PPP has pledged to end the operations in Balochistan and enact a more equitable federal system.

Sympathy Vote Many supporters of their late leader Bhutto ascribe her death not to terrorists but rather to government-linked forces seeking to perpetuate the marginalization of their leaders at the national level. Her assassination, immediately prior to the elections, swayed many to vote in her memory against President Musharraf’s government. The PPP was harshly critical of the Musharraf government’s reluctance to allow an international investigation into her death, and was publicly skeptical of reports blaming South Waziristan militant leader Baitullah Mehsud for the December 27th Rawalpindi attack.

A Scotland Yard forensic inquiry into the cause of Bhutto’s death did not allay PPP suspicions. Following the elections, Bhutto’s widower and de facto leader of the PPP, Asif Ali Zardari, reiterated the party’s demand for a U. N. investigation. The PPP’s return to power offers Sindhis hope for a greater voice in shaping Pakistani government policies and a more equitable distribution of national resources.

Anger with Musharraf’s War on Terror  The Pakistani public voted to remove President Musharraf’s party from power not only because of his ouster of an independent judiciary and his mismanagement of wheat and fuel prices, but also because of his closeness to the United States and its controversial “war on terror.” Derided as “Busharraf” for his perceived deference to the U.S. agenda, Musharraf’s repeated attempts to conflate his political survival with that of the Pakistani state have contributed to the linkage of the “global war on terror” and his personal rule.

While 73 percent of Pakistanis polled in the IRI poll agreed that religious extremism was a serious problem in Pakistan, and 65 percent said the same of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Pakistanis have a different perception of how the threat should be fought. Pakistanis across the political spectrum see the approach to fighting terrorism championed by Musharraf and the United States as overmilitarized. Musharraf’s crackdown on the Lal Masjid mosque in the summer of 2007, which killed at least 100 and by non-governmental estimates many more, alienated many Pakistanis for its brutality. Taliban and Al Qaeda information operations emphasize civilian casualties inflicted by covert U.S. air strikes, further alienating Pakistanis.

The Awami National Party, a secular ethnically Pashtun party that won the greatest share of votes in the Northwest Frontier Province, has presented a different vision for combating extremism. Senior party leaders point to the region’s economic and political alienation as the chief cause for terrorism. Asked one ANP leader: “When there are no jobs, no source of income, no health facilities, no educational facilities, no justice, no political rights, what can you expect if people are offered money and guns?” The party has denounced terror and extremism—its own leadership suffered several bombing attacks leading up the elections—but has placed a greater emphasis on reconciliation with their tribal kinsmen and the integration of the Federal Administered Tribal Areas into the Pakistani political system.

U.S. Policy Options

Under the rule of President Musharraf, the United States relied on a single interlocutor for negotiating a strategic relationship. Musharraf’s lack of accountability to the people of Pakistan, however, diminished his credibility at home and ultimately came back to bite him on election day. The new political players in Pakistan must answer to their constituencies, the majority of whom view the current U.S.-Pakistani counterterrorism relationship with suspicion.

Despite this, terrorism and militant Islamism do not enjoy popular support in Pakistan, and there is still opportunity to make a common cause. For all the worry expressed over the political parties’ tactics against terrorism, it must be noted that the U.S. relationship with Musharraf has, by the Bush administration’s own admission, failed to stop the spread of militancy in the border areas or deny the Al Qaeda leadership safe havens there.

The United States needs to acknowledge Pakistan’s new political environment and work to form a consensus strategy that will enjoy broad Pakistani support, if it hopes to avoid continued rejection like that shown to President Musharraf in the polls. The United States needs to do the following:

  • Refrain from trying to interfere with the coalition-forming process. Reports that the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad was pressuring the PPP to join with the discredited PML-Q rather than with Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N provoked a backlash in Pakistani public opinion, as have President Bush’s continued public statements in support of Musharraf. The Bush administration needs to accept that it cannot dictate political winners and losers for the Pakistani people.
  • Invest in Pakistan’s democratic institutions—not its political personalities—over the long-term so that the nation boasts an independent judiciary, free media, and a stronger democracy. Expand our contacts beyond the elites to the full range of Pakistani society.
  • Increase non-military aid to build greater goodwill between the two countries and help sustain these civil society institutions. While the United States has disbursed over $10 billion in aid to Pakistan since 2001, the overwhelming majority of this has gone to the military. A “democracy dividend” would help counter popular Pakistani perceptions that the United States prefers to deal with military regimes and cuts funding when less malleable civilian governments come to power.
  • Move away from the “transactional” model of U.S.-Pakistani relations, in which the United States is perceived as buying Pakistani cooperation for its own ends. This was historically the case during the anti-Soviet operations in Afghanistan 20 years ago, and is believed to be the case by many Pakistanis since 9/11.
  • Support efforts to integrate the FATA region into Pakistan. The United States should encourage and support efforts by the Pakistani government to consult with local stakeholders. As part of this, members of FATA should be allowed to create political parties.

U.S. policymakers need to pursue more than a counterterrorism mission with the Pakistani people. We need to move toward a broader engagement in which each ally recognizes the other’s interests and cooperates to forge a shared strategy.

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Caroline Wadhams

Senior Fellow

Colin Cookman

Policy Analyst