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Opinion Briefing: New Normal Unclear for U.S., Pakistan

Opinion Briefing: New Normal Unclear for U.S., Pakistan

This article is part of a series of U.S. Foreign Policy Opinion Briefings aimed at helping to inform U.S. leaders on pressing foreign policy issues.

Quick Summary: With Pakistani disapproval of U.S. leadership soaring to an all-time high of 85% last year, hopes for achieving some normalcy between the nations appear somewhat grim. But Gallup data also show a sizable percentage of Pakistanis (43%) believe it is very important for Western and Muslim societies to get along -- suggesting this hope is not completely dead.

Issue at Hand: Pakistan's relations with the U.S. remain on hold as the country continues to re-evaluate ties after a November NATO air strike killed Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border. The November attack triggered a diplomatic crisis that further strained relations that were already rocky after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil in May. A Gallup poll shortly after bin Laden's death showed almost two-thirds of all Pakistanis condemned the U.S. military operation. Nearly 9 in 10 Pakistanis who knew about the operation disapproved that the U.S. carried it out inside Pakistan without the government's knowledge.

Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told Reuters on Jan. 19 that re-engagement with the U.S. cannot start until the re-evaluation process is complete and expected rules for relations to be out "in days." Khar said she believed the process would also result in a stronger, much more effective partnership between the two countries.

Reports also surfaced in mid-January that Pakistan is considering re-opening the supply routes that it closed to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan after the attack. While such a move would be a sign of easing tensions, Pakistan is also reportedly considering tacking tariffs on to the goods that cross its borders. The Associated Press reports that the U.S. is already paying six times as much to send supplies to Afghanistan via alternate routes.

Obama Administration's Stance: State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Jan. 18 that the administration's message to Pakistan during this fragile time in relations "has been very clear." "We believe we both need a strong, continuing, cooperative relationship across the range of important issues -- political, economic, security," Nuland said. "We want to get back to the full range of business together, and we want to do that as soon as the Pakistani side is fully ready to have those conversations with us."

Nuland said the Pakistani government had not officially contacted the administration about re-opening supply routes and that any reaction would come after the Pakistanis complete their review and when "they're ready to talk to us and make proposals."

Pakistanis' Views of U.S. Leadership: The U.S. military operation that resulted in Osama bin Laden's death in Pakistan made an already unpopular U.S. even less popular with some Pakistanis who likely perceived it as further impingement on their sovereignty. Results from a Gallup poll conducted May 9-12 immediately after the operation underscored then how difficult the task would be for Pakistan and the U.S. to repair relations; now, that task is likely even more difficult.

Sixty-four percent of Pakistanis surveyed who were aware of the U.S. action say it made them have a more negative opinion of the U.S., while 5% say it made them have a more positive opinion.

More negative opinion of U.S. among Pakistanis aware of U.S. operation

The 10% of Pakistanis who approved of U.S. leadership after the military operation was down from 18% in 2010, but not meaningfully lower than what Gallup measured in 2008 and 2009. Disapproval, however, soared to a record-high 85%.

Approval of U.S. among Pakistani adults

While few Pakistanis overall approved of U.S. leadership, those who were aware of the U.S. action were slightly more likely to approve of U.S. leadership (11%) than those who were not aware (4%). But the results also suggest there is resentment for the U.S. action even among the Pakistanis who approve of U.S. leadership. A majority of these Pakistanis say the action made them have more negative opinions of the U.S.

At the same time, Pakistanis did not place much faith in their own country's leadership: 25% of Pakistanis in the May 9-12 survey said they were confident. The significant pressure the Pakistani government faces from within -- particularly now with its civilian government in crisis -- likely figures heavily into the likelihood of any normalcy in the relationship between the two nations.

Pakistanis' Views of the West: Although few Pakistanis give U.S. leadership high marks, many more find it personally very important that Muslim societies and Western societies get along. While most of the interviewing for the April and May 2011 poll in Pakistan took place before bin Laden's death and it is difficult to tell what effect that might have had, 43% of Pakistanis at the time said it is very important to them that the two societies get along, up from 27% in 2010.

imporant for Muslim and Western societies to get along

Pakistanis so far have been more likely to see Muslim societies investing more in this relationship than the West. Sixty-two percent of Pakistanis in April and May 2011 said Muslim societies respect the West, while 19% of Pakistanis say Western societies respect Muslim ones. A majority (55%) of Pakistanis said they do not believe the West respects Muslim societies.

Western/Muslim societies respect each other?

At the same time, Pakistanis remained more mixed on what greater interaction between Western and Muslim societies means for them. Overall, they lean more toward seeing it as offering more of a threat than a benefit. Thirty-nine percent of Pakistanis viewed greater interaction as a threat, while 31% viewed it as more of a benefit and another 31% said they did not know.

Muslim and Western societies interaction threat or benefit?

Policy Implications: The U.S. and Pakistan have a long way to go before they can establish a "new normal" in relations and as Nuland said, "get back to the full range of business together." A full reset is likely impossible before the next U.S. presidential election in November, meaning the issue will remain a key foreign policy challenge for the next president, whether Obama or someone else.

Pakistanis' sour views of the U.S. in 2011 underscore how difficult it will be for them to accept any relationship, but Gallup's data also show the desire for relations between the West and Muslim societies is not dead. It is possible that the re-evaluation of the relations currently underway will provide some clarity for Pakistanis who are uncertain about what these relations mean for them.

For complete data sets or custom research from the more than 150 countries Gallup continually surveys, please contact or call 202.715.3030.

Survey Methods

Results for the two surveys are based on face-to-face interviews conducted between April 25 and May 14, 2011, and May 9-12, 2011, with approximately 1,000 adults in each survey, aged 15 and older, covering urban and rural areas across all four provinces in Pakistan. Federally administered areas and Azad Jammu Kashmir were excluded from the May 9-12 study. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

For more complete methodology and specific survey dates, please review Gallup's Country Data Set details.

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