(CNSNews.com) - The State Department this week highlighted John Kerry’s “longstanding relationship with many Pakistani leaders,” but the results of a new poll suggest the new secretary of state faces an uphill battle dealing with one of Washington’s most testy partnerships.
In the Gallup survey, conducted late last year but released on Thursday, 92 percent of Pakistani respondents said they disapprove of American leadership, with just four percent approving – the highest disapproval rating among Pakistanis ever recorded by the pollster.
By comparison Gallup found a 49 percent Pakistani disapproval rating of U.S. leadership in the spring of 2011 – before the U.S. Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout near Islamabad. That was roughly the same as Gallup’s finding in mid-2007, during President Bush’s second term.
Gallup’s Andrew Dugan and Mohamed Younis noted that U.S. approval declined noticeably after the raid on the al-Qaeda terror chief’s compound, “an event that many Pakistanis viewed as a blatant disregard for Pakistani sovereignty.”
Another Gallup poll, in mid-2012, found that 55 percent of Pakistanis felt interaction between Muslim and Western societies was “more of a threat,” compared to 31 percent who viewed such interaction as “more of a benefit.”
That 55 percent marked a sharp rise from 39 percent in 2011, an increase Gallup pollsters said came at a time of increased sovereignty concerns, following both the bin Laden raid and an escalation in the use of drone-launched missiles against terror suspects along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
The “more of a threat” view was found to be held among younger Pakistanis to a slightly larger degree than older ones – 57 percent of 15-29 year-olds, compared to 53 percent of those aged 30 or older.
“The largely anti-Western sentiment among these young Pakistanis suggests that, even as this sizable group ages and begins to have a larger role in Pakistani governance, relations between the U.S. and Pakistan may continue to be fraught with challenges,” said the pollsters.
“The growing, indeed essentially universal, distaste for U.S. leadership in Pakistan, a nation of such crucial importance – while perhaps not directly attributable to the increasing number of drones deployed there – will undoubtedly strain future relations between the two countries.”
On Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Kerry had spoken by phone to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and stressed “many shared interests, including fighting terrorism and extremism.”
“As you may know, Secretary Kerry has a longstanding relationship with many Pakistani leaders, and he used the opportunity of the phone call to underscore the continuing importance of an effective, strong, and mutually beneficial U.S.-Pakistani relationship,” she said.
As President Obama’s second term gets underway, his nominations for top national security posts have both pleased and troubled Pakistani observers.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry led efforts to provide significant U.S. assistance funding to Pakistan, and Islamabad views him as sympathetic.
Even amid the uproar in the U.S. over the fact bin Laden had been found living in Pakistan –less than half a mile from the country’s top military academy – Kerry in May 2011 cautioned against closing the aid spigot.
“No matter what we learn about the events that preceded the killing of Osama bin Laden,” he told a Foreign Relations Committee hearing at the time, “we still have vital national security interests in this region, and we have worked hard to build a partnership with Pakistan, fragile and difficult and challenged as it may be at times.”
Sen. Chuck Hagel, Obama’s nominee for defense secretary – whose confirmation process has hit a speed bump – has also been supportive of generous aid to Pakistan. In 2009 Hagel and Kerry co-chaired an Atlantic Council report that made a case for substantially greater U.S. assistance to Islamabad.
In his recent Senate confirmation hearing, Hagel reiterated his support for funding for Pakistan.
“As the president has said, more terrorists have been killed in Pakistan than anywhere else
since 9/11 – and that would not be possible without Pakistani cooperation,” he said in written responses to the Armed Services Committee’s questions.
“Security assistance for Pakistan has helped Pakistan press this campaign against the militant and terrorist networks that threaten us all,” Hagel said. “If confirmed, I will work to ensure that our security assistance and other support to Pakistan both serves U.S. interests and is cost effective.”
In contrast to Kerry and Hagel, Obama’s nominee for CIA director, White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, is viewed in a less positive light by some in Pakistan, due to his role as architect of the administration’s stepped up drone use.
Rafia Zakaria, a columnist for the Karachi daily Dawn, wrote late last month that Brennan’s nomination was bad news for Pakistan.
“[A]ny good news arriving with Mr. Hagel’s nomination is largely outdone by the appointment of Mr. Brennan, who will now have the entire machinery of the CIA with which to conduct a larger-scale surreptitious war that routinely evades national borders, legal obstacles and fails to count casualties by the sly obfuscation of definitions,” she wrote.
During Brennan’s Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing on February 7 Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.) cited CIA Director Michael Hayden and former commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McCrystal as making observations to the effect that the drone strikes were “creating a backlash.”
Brennan in reply said the reaction to the “dropping of ordnance,” wherever and however it is done, should always be taken into account.
“But I would not agree with some of the statements that you had quoted there,” he added, “because what we, in fact, have found in many areas is that the people are being held hostage to al-Qaeda in these areas and have welcomed the work that the U.S. government has done with their governments to rid them of the al-Qaeda cancer that exists.”
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