The latest Pew poll of Pakistani attitudes towards the US and the war on terror raises more questions than it provides answers. While several numbers from the annual survey of Pakistani attitudes are sure to make headlines, what the poll actually reveals may be lost in the numbers.
The poll’s overview begins with a made-for-headlines statement:
Most Pakistanis disapprove of the U.S. military operation that killed Osama bin Laden, and although the al Qaeda leader has not been well-liked in recent years, a majority of Pakistanis describe his death as a bad thing. Only 14% say it is a good thing.
Such a statement will inevitably play to pre-existing suspicions of Pakistan, but what do the poll results really mean? Consider the question posed about Osama bin Laden’s death:
Regardless of how you feel about the U.S. military operation, do you think it is a good thing or a bad thing that Osama bin Laden is dead?
The results are that 14 percent replied, ‘Good thing'; 55 percent replied, ‘Bad thing'; and 32 percent either didn’t know or refused to answer.
Many Americans will read this as evidence of Pakistani sympathy or support for the terrorist leader, but such a conclusion requires assumptions that are not supported by data in the poll. Pew asked respondents whether Osama bin Laden’s death is “Good” or “Bad”, but they never asked why the respondent answered that way. Someone could have answered that Osama’s death was “good” because it would rally extremists, and other could have responded that it was “bad” for the same reason. We don’t know what any of the respondents intended, but are left to interpret the responses through the lens of American attitudes.
Georgetown professor C. Christine Fair explains this phenomenon in her response to Christopher Hitchens’ latest piece on Pakistan for Vanity Fair:
Hitchens is correct in noting that Pakistanis of all strata are deeply outraged that U.S. Navy SEALS came into Abbottabad — a garrison-town — to catch bin Laden without hindrance and with impunity. However, his outrage at Pakistani outrage is misplaced. Of course, Pakistanis should feel so violated because they were. As an American, I support the raid that eliminated this terrorist. However, from the optic of many Pakistanis, they first had to contend with the notion that bin Laden was in their country and second that the United States stormed their airspace, conducted a firefight for 40 minutes in a garrison town and then escaped with its dead quarry all before the Pakistanis could even scramble their F-16s.
Pakistanis themselves began wondering whether their military could protect them from India and whether the United States could act with equal ease to eliminate their nuclear program. Needless to say, all of this came on the back of years of drone attacks against terrorists in Pakistan’s tribal areas. While the facts about the drone program in Pakistan are grotesquely distorted and obscured by Pakistani and American officials, ultimately perception matters more than reality. Pakistanis, especially beyond FATA, loathe them as weekly assaults upon their nation’s sovereignty. The bin Laden raid was just the latest and most brazen of assaults on the country and demonstrated the incapacity or will of the military or intelligence agencies to stop the United States. Who would not be demoralized and outraged by these events?
There are similar methodological problems with the way Pew asked about Pakistanis’ views of political leaders. According to the poll’s findings, the most favored political leader in Paksitan is Imran Khan. This may come to a surprise to many Pakistanis since Imran Khan’s political party, Tehreek-i-Insaf Pakistan (PTI), has never won more than 1 percent of the vote in an election. Is Imran Khan a rising star in Pakistani politics? That’s not what the poll actually tells us about Pakistani politics.
In surveying Pakistanis about their views of political leaders, Pew limited the field of “Pakistani leaders” to six individuals: President Asif Zardari, Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan. Notice anything about this list? Only two of the figures Pakistanis were asked about are not current office holders – Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan.
With ongoing terrorist attacks, a struggling economy, and incidents such as the Raymond Davis shooting and the Abbottabad operation fresh on people’s minds, is it any wonder that sitting politicians would come under greater scrutiny than those on the sidelines? Even the higher numbers for Imran Khan must be weighed with the consideration that Nawaz Sharif has served as Prime Minister twice, and therefore carries the baggage of past decisions while Imran Khan has never held any political office and has no record for people to judge.
The other strange thing about Pew’s list of political leaders is that they chose to include Imran Khan, but did not ask about political leaders from opposition parties that actually have more support at the polls. Noticeably absent from Pew’s list are Chaudhry Hussain, head of the Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid faction (PML-Q) which has 76 seats in parliament; Altaf Hussain, head of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) which has 32 seats in parliament; Asfandyar Wali Khan, head of Awami National Party (ANP), which has 19 seats in parliament; or Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, head of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam – Fazlur Rehman faction (JUI-F) which has 16 seats in parliament and was recently awarded the post of opposition leader in the Senate.
Rather than ask Pakistanis about the political leaders and parties that they are actually voting for, Pew skipped much of parliament and asked about a former cricket celebrity who has never held elected office. Additionally, Pew admits that the sample surveyed was “disproportionately urban” and excluded Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and parts of Khyber Pakthunkhwa and Baluchistan. Perhaps this further explains the disproportionate popularity of Imran Khan despite his inability to secure actual votes come election time.
This year’s Pew poll is not the first to come under criticism as being inherently problematic. Following the release of last year’s poll results, Kalsoom Lakhani noted of Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel blog that “quantitative data cannot capture the nuances and complexities of identity and society.” It seems that, unfortunately, this problem continues to plague Pew’s annual poll.