- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2008

Terrorism is not a top concern among the Pakistani people, according to a recent poll in which only 2 percent cited suicide bombings and less than 1 percent chose al Qaeda as the most important issue facing the country.

The results come as the U.S. and its allies press the months-old Pakistani government of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to do more to fight the resurgent Taliban in the border region of western Pakistan.

“This attention is disproportional to the lack of importance attached to it by the Pakistani people,” according to the report released last week by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute (IRI), a group loosely affiliated with the Republican Party.

The IRI poll, conducted between June 1-15, surveyed 3,484 adult men and women from 223 rural and 127 urban locations in 50 districts in all four provinces of Pakistan.

Olivier Guillard, senior fellow from the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), said the findings could be interpreted in two ways.

“On the one hand, it could reinforce American perceptions that war on terror is not taken seriously in Pakistan - not only by the government, but also by countrymen. On the other hand, the U.S. could think the terrorism issue has been overemphasized and that it is time for both countries to move closer to each other. But in the present context of renewed tensions, I believe this poll could deepen incomprehension and weaken cooperation.”

Only 15 percent of poll respondents replied “yes” when asked if they thought Pakistan should cooperate with the United States on the war on terror, while 71 percent were opposed.

Cooperation between the two countries, including on counterterrorism, is expected to be the main topic of discussion when Mr. Gilani meets President Bush at the White House on Monday.

Before leaving for the U.S., Mr. Gilani flew to Peshawar for an emergency grand tribal jirga on what to do about the rapidly deteriorating situation on the border with Afghanistan.

“Militancy and terrorism have plunged the entire region into a crisis, and tribal leaders should help the government in curbing militancy,” he told the assembled elder Maliks from the seven lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) where Taliban and al Qaeda enjoy privileged sanctuaries.

In a teleconference organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Malik Naveed Khan, the Inspector General of Police for NWFP, which shares borders with all seven “tribal agencies,” expressed alarm over Taliban’s raids out of FATA into his own province. “Peshawar,” he said, “is threatened on several sides.”

Mr. Khan said that “it’s like fighting the shadows of an invisible army. We’re poor on the mobility side. We now have 500 constables being trained in anti-terrorist tactics, but they won’t be on the ground for a year. … Forty percent of our police force is not even in police buildings, so they can’t defend themselves when attacked.”

However, in the rest of the country, concerns about terrorism have declined since IRI’s last poll in February in the wake of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Chairman Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. At that time, 12 percent chose terrorism as their top issue, while 6 percent selected law and order.

“But we should not be wrong,” said Frederic Grare, a visiting scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “When Bhutto was killed, the people’s anger was not at terrorism but at the government.”

Mr. Grare said the reason why terrorism is not a top concern in Pakistan is even more obvious.

“The Pakistani people are not actually the targets of international terrorism; they are collateral damages. And what is left from sectarian terrorism is now rather marginal,” he said.

During an interview last month with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani admitted that the Pakistani government’s concentrated efforts to fight against terrorism did not necessarily resonate with Pakistanis.

“Somehow there has been a weakness in communicating to the Muslim people that terrorism is an enemy of Islam and Muslims as much as it threatens the U.S.,” Mr. Haqqani said.

Mr. Guillard said that the poll findings highlight “the misperception from the Western world about the actual state of the threat in Pakistan.”

One of the main findings of the IRI survey was that the economy appears by far the greatest concern among Pakistanis, of whom 71 percent cited inflation, 13 percent unemployment and 5 percent said poverty was the most important issue facing the country. In all, 89 percent of those polled selected an economic concern as their top priority.

“If we look more closely at the situation there, this result could have been expected. How fatal terrorism is, it does not concretely affect as many people as poverty, in which some 50 million live,” he said.

Arnaud de Borchgrave contributed to this report.

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