Bad Public Diplomacy Outcomes in Pakistan

by Steven R. Corman

Pakistani public opinion about the U.S. and its war against extremists is a matter of  considerable concern given the tenuous situation in that country.  As we know, the public is quite unhappy about cross-border missile strikes the U.S. has been conducting this year.

Even if the U.S. and Pakistani governments have a tacit agreement allowing the missile strikes from unmanned aircraft, this does not make them acceptable to the public at large.  And given the weak position of the government, public opinion matters.  As if to show this, Pakistan already shut down the Khyber Pass to NATO supply traffic once this year in a symbolic protest against the missile strikes.

Yesterday the Gallup organization released an “opinion briefing” covering a survey of 840 Pakistani adults conducted in October of this year.  It shows that the pubic diplomacy outcomes of U.S. policy and recent actions in the region are not doing much to asuage public concerns.  Among the highlights:

  • Almost half of the respondents believe U.S. missile strikes are ineffective in riding Pakistan of extremists.
  • 54% believe the presence of the U.S. military in Afghanistan is a threat to their country (up 9% since June)
  • About a third of respondents said cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan mostly benefits the U.S.

The fact that so many Pakistanis view the U.S. as a threat that takes self-serving action has to be viewed with alarm, especially given that the survey excluded the more radicalized areas of the country (it “did not include the Federally Administered Tribal Areas or Azad Jammu and Kashmir”).

Importantly, it is not the case that Pakistanis view the fight against terrorism as unimportant.  Another report based on the same data showed that 60% feel that their government should do more to rid the country of terrorist activity.  So while they think it is important to fight extremists, they don’t think cooperation with the U.S. in that fight is in their interests.

This poll shows what a public diplomacy challenge President Elect Obama and Secretary Designate Clinton have on their hands.  The Gallup report concurs:

success for Obama’s plans to create an “effective strategic partnership” will largely hinge on how collaborative and mutually beneficial Pakistanis perceive that partnership [with the U.S.] to be.