ISLAMABAD – Pakistanis' views on the Taliban have shifted dramatically in the past year, with 70 percent now opposing the militants, according to a new poll. The United States doesn't fare well either, with 64 percent of Pakistanis seeing Washington as an enemy.
The mounting unpopularity of the Taliban coincides with an explosion of militant violence in Pakistan — attacks have killed more than 2,500 people since the start of 2008 — and the extremists' attempts to expand their reach and impose a harsh interpretation of Islam in new parts of the country.
Pew Global Attitudes, a project of a nonpartisan research center based in Washington, released the poll Thursday. It conducted face-to-face interviews with 1,254 adult Pakistanis in late May and early June, mostly in urban areas. It conducts a similar poll each year.
In 2008, 27 percent of Pakistanis surveyed had a favorable view of the Taliban, and 33 percent saw them unfavorably. The rest had no opinion.
A year later, only 10 percent approved of the Taliban. Some 70 percent disapproved — more than double than in 2008. The numbers for Al Qaeda followed a similar sinking trajectory, with support for the terrorist network at just 9 percent.
However, the U.S. was only slightly more popular than the Taliban. Nearly two-thirds, 64 percent, viewed America as an enemy while only 9 percent described it as a partner, even though the U.S. is impoverished Pakistan's biggest donor and the two countries appear to be increasingly coordinating in anti-terrorist operations along the Afghan border.
Pakistan was one of only four countries among 20 recently surveyed by Pew that did not show sharply improved views of the U.S. since President Barack Obama took office. In Pakistan, opinion had not changed, and it had the lowest confidence rating in the new president of any of the 20 countries, at 13 percent.
One bright note for Washington: 53 percent want relations with the U.S. to improve.
Several Pakistanis interviewed Thursday by The Associated Press said they saw no change in U.S. policy toward Pakistan under the new administration.
"Obama is like an old wine in a new bottle," said Mohammed Zaman, 45, a lawyer in the eastern city of Lahore.
Those who spoke to AP said increasing evidence of the Taliban's cruelty was swaying their views against the militants.
"Once I used to like them, but now I have no respect for them because I am against killing innocent people," said Ali Ahmad Mengal, 26, a university student in the southwestern city of Quetta.
Mengal said some Pakistanis were at first receptive to claims by the Taliban and Al Qaeda to be defenders of Islam, but now he supports the Pakistani military's recent all-out offensive against the militants. "It is the right time for crushing them."
Pakistan's military redoubled its fight against the Taliban — a loose federation of various tribal and regional factions — in April after militants broke a peace deal and took over a district about 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad. Government forces took back that district and also the nearby Swat Valley.
Now the military is targeting Taliban-controlled strongholds in the northwestern tribal belt, where the militants are also believed to give shelter to Al Qaeda leaders and help plan attacks on U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
In the latest fighting, army helicopter gunships pounded several bases near the Kurram and Aurakzai tribal areas, killing 12 people Thursday, intelligence officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment.
Many residents of the tribal regions — whose conservative, ethnic Pashtun residents were not part of the Pew survey — also oppose the militants, but they are too afraid to express their view, according to Mujahid Hussain, 28, who lives in the Taliban-controlled town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan.
"The Taliban are terrorists. They are the enemy of humanity and the enemy of Islam and they should be eliminated from the country," he told AP, adding that the army should not abandon its operations in North and South Waziristan without crushing the insurgents.
But poll showed 58 percent of respondents oppose U.S. missile attacks on militant targets inside Pakistan as a violation of national sovereignty. The poll was taken before the CIA missile strike believed to have killed Pakistan Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud on Aug. 5.
The Pew survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.