Growing Anti-US Sentiment in Pakistan, What Does it Mean?


August 2012



A recent poll among Pakistanis shows a sharp rise in anti-Americanism. Such strong public opinion darkens an already troublesome alliance at a time when both countries need each other’s cooperation to ensure mutual security and prosperity.


The poll results, published by the Pew Research Center early last week, were compiled after over 1,000 face-to-face interviews with Pakistani citizens and represents roughly 80% of the population. The numbers are grim, revealing that three out of four Pakistanis (74%) not only disapprove of US foreign policy in the region but actually consider the US an enemy. Only 13% of Pakistanis feel that relations with the US have improved in recent years, and only 45% support efforts to improve relations with the US.

Although these poll results correspond with the trend seen in recent years, this data shows a particularly sharp decline in US public perception. The decline is owing to a number of incidents over the past year that have greatly strained US-Pakistan relations including a NATO airstrike which mistakenly killed over 20 Pakistani soldiers, Pakistan cutting off NATO supply routes, a drop in military aid to Pakistan, and a breakdown in combined intelligence efforts.

Regional media outlets report on these incidents without pulling any punches and have played a large role in spreading the acrimony towards the US across the country. Najam Sethi, an award-winning Pakistani journalist and editor-in-chief of Geo News and the English political weekly, Friday Times, told the Council on Foreign Relations in December that “the development of Pakistan’s media is “a work in progress”; The anti-American and anti-Indian narrative runs more fiercely in the Urdu-language press.” Sethi explained. “English media is more liberal, rational, and oriented towards pragmatism, but do not reach as wide an audience as the other regional media.”

The tensions are unlikely to end soon since both nations have not been able to come to terms on the proper nature of their relationship. On the one hand Pakistani officials have expressed outrage saying that their national sovereignty is being undermined by US counterterrorism tactics, and insist that there be a total and complete redefinition of US involvement in the region void of any unilateral action including drone strikes. On the other hand the US, frustrated with Pakistan’s lukewarm efforts to crackdown on insurgents, has defended its use of drones and has vowed to continue their deployment for self defense.


[-] Such negative public perception is bad news for the US government because it hampers intelligence gathering efforts to fight insurgents, complicates war efforts in Afghanistan, and increases the already great risk faced by US diplomats in the country. Experts from the think-tank Stratfor have pointed out the inconvenience of strained relations for the US’ Afghan war efforts, “As the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan continues, Washington is trying to set up a security framework for the country after the U.S. and NATO military withdrawal is complete. The United States will need Pakistan’s help to implement any sort of arrangement involving Afghanistan, but recent cross-border incidents have brought relations between Washington and Islamabad to a new low point.”

[-] For Pakistan, the obvious but lighter consequences of a failed relationship with the US include a decrease in needed military and humanitarian aid. The heavier implications, however, have to do with Pakistan’s fledgling democracy and its urgent need to avoid failure in the face of numerous critics who question its ability to govern effectively. Already shaking with political and economic instability, Pakistan needs the US’ help dealing with one of the country’s most pressing issues: terrorism. Without US assistance in combatting radical Islamists who both fuel the anti-government rhetoric and benefit from it, the odds of Pakistan putting a stop to the bombings and the spread of religious extremism are slim. Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and other insurgent groups continue to threaten the Pakistani government to meet insurgent demands or face more attacks. The Pakistani government remains in the struggle to balance public opinion and its need for continuing US support.

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