When the history of the post-9/11 war on Islamic extremist terrorism is written, one of the enduring mysteries for examination will be the inability of U.S. officials to forge a common view of the threat with Pakistan, despite tens of thousands of terrorist-related deaths and injuries suffered by both countries. U.S. officials have tried everything from arm-twisting (State Department official Richard Armitage threatening to bomb Pakistan “back to the stone age” if it didn’t cooperate), to making buddy-buddy (former Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen’s tireless, and ultimately fruitless, efforts to develop a good rapport with Pakistani Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani), to outright bribery (to the tune of $23.6 billion in U.S. military and economic aid to Pakistan since 2002).
The net result of that decade-long effort is atrocious. Pakistan has shut down NATO supply lines to Afghanistan that run through its territory, and continues to offer sanctuary and support to Taliban insurgents who are killing U.S. troops and Afghan civilians almost daily. Despite high-level assassinations by terrorist groups who claim dominion over large swaths of the country, Islamabad also continues to see its democratic neighbor India as a greater threat than the myriad extremist groups within its own borders.
A likely explanation for that dismal track record is reflected in a new Pew Research Center poll of Pakistani public opinion. The poll recalls “Occam’s razor,” or the principle that when selecting from among numerous competing hypotheses, choose the one that offers the simplest explanation. To wit, Pakistanis really, really don’t like us.
In fact, roughly three of four Pakistanis (74 percent) consider the U.S. an enemy, which is up from 69 percent last year and 64 percent three years ago. Of the 15 nations surveyed in both 2008 and 2012, Pakistan is the only country where ratings for President Obama are no better than the ratings former President George W. Bush received during his final year in office. Pakistani public support is likewise plummeting in terms of strengthening the U.S.-Pakistan bilateral relationship (45 percent think it is still important, down from 60 percent last year); receiving U.S. financial and humanitarian aid in areas where extremists operate (50 percent support, down from 72 percent in 2009); and using the Pakistani military to fight extremists (support has dropped from 53 percent three years ago to 32 percent today).
There are numerous explanations for this abject failure of diplomacy and bilateral relations. As a country defined since its inception by its Muslim identity, Pakistan was always ambivalent about a conflict against Islamic extremist groups. As a weak country threatened by a stronger neighbor, Pakistan has also long stoked Islamic extremism, directing it at India over the contested territory of Kashmir. In the Pew poll, 22 percent of Pakistanis actually had a favorable view, and 41 percent had “no opinion,” of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist group active in Kashmir that was behind the bloody 2008 Mumbai attacks in India.
Pakistan also supported the Afghan Taliban as an instrument of influence in that country during the 1990s. Perhaps not surprisingly, a solid majority of Pakistanis in the recent Pew poll had “no opinion” about the Haqqani network, an extremist insurgent group under the Taliban umbrella that takes sanctuary in Pakistan’s tribal area and regularly launches spectacular suicide terrorist attacks on U.S. forces, the Afghan government, and Afghan civilians.
Pakistani officials also understandably felt abandoned by the United States after Islamabad and the CIA helped drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s by funding mujahedeen groups, including one led by Osama bin Laden, only to have Washington turn its attention elsewhere. There is also a strong and somewhat justified sentiment among Pakistan’s current civilian leaders that the United States was always more supportive of its military strongmen like former President Pervez Musharraf, and thus hypocritical on the subject of democracy. Finally, Pakistanis deplore the United States’ campaign of drone strikes against terrorist targets on their territory as a violation of their sovereignty, even as their own inability to police that territory is an open humiliation.
All of which is to point out that the U.S.–Pakistani relationship is agonizingly complex, even as the explanation for its fundamental dysfunction is not: As the Pew poll points out once again, they really, really, don’t like us.