ISLAMABAD — More than 80 percent of Pakistanis view the Taliban and al-Qaida as a critical threat to the country, an opinion poll released Wednesday said, marking a turn in public opinion that stands to bolster the army's ongoing offensive against militants close to the Afghan border.
The findings will likely be welcomed by Washington, which is pressing Islamabad to take the fight to insurgents blamed for scores of bloody bombings in nuclear-armed Pakistan in recent years as well as attacks on NATO and US troops in Afghanistan.
The army has been battling militants in the Swat Valley in the country's northwest since April, a campaign that has driven some 2 million civilians from their homes. In recent weeks, it has made initial forays into the mountainous tribal region of South Waziristan, where top Taliban and al-Qaida leaders are believed to be hiding.
The survey showed that 81 percent of Pakistanis believe the activities of the Taliban and other Muslim extremists were a "critical threat" to the country, up from the 34 percent polled on the same question in September 2007. Eighty-two percent said Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida was also a critical threat, exactly twice as many who thought so two years ago.
The poll was carried out by Socio-Economic Development Consultants in Islamabad on behalf of WorldPublicOpinion.org. It questioned 1,000 people across Pakistan from May 17 to 28 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
The results mirror anecdotal accounts of a shift in the public mood in recent months, as well as among government leaders, politicians and army officers.
The Taliban's violation of a peace deal in Swat, a widely circulated video showing a militant allegedly beating a women in public and an uptick in suicide attacks around the country over the last year have contributed to the shift in public opinion.
Political analyst Rasul Bakhsh Rais said he thought the anti-Taliban sentiment was "irreversible."
"Some people had this feeling that Taliban were good people and very religious and they have good intentions and they're nationalist," he said. "But today the sentiment against the Taliban is very strong because they are a disruptive force. They don't present an alternative to the modern nation-state. They don't have any vision for the economy.
"Can the Taliban generate electricity? Can they give you cheaper oil? What can they do except kill people?"
Despite the refugee crisis triggered by the Swat operation, 68 percent of the poll's respondents expressed confidence in the government's handling of the Swat campaign, and 70 percent said their sympathies lie with the government _ compared to only 5 percent for the Taliban.
A majority of Pakistanis have always opposed Islamist extremists, although they have not necessarily viewed them as a threat to the country. Distrust of the United States and anger at the invasion of Afghanistan _ coupled with a widely held view that leaders in Islamabad were acting against the militants at the behest of Washington and for financial gain _ have also influenced the debate in the country.
The military says the recent shift in opinion has made its job easier. Residents in areas affected by offensives have become more cooperative, sharing information on militant positions, army officials have said. And in some spots, such as the Dir region, local tribesmen have launched their own militias to root out insurgents.
Previous army offensives against the militants have faltered amid grumbling from the public and politicians, with many people believing the only way to end the bloodshed was for the central government to strike a deal with the extremists.
Pakistanis interviewed by the Associated Press on Wednesday generally agreed the Taliban had lost any luster they had.
"This bunch of people using the garb of Islam cannot be friends of Muslims and Pakistan," said Asif Jawed, 35, a pharmacy owner. "They should be eliminated at all cost."
Raza Jafer, 29, a sales executive in the largest city of Karachi, said the survey results made sense because the Taliban have brought us to a situation "which is full of fear."
But another Pakistani interviewed in the same city said he doubted the results, insisting the Taliban were "nice and good people."
"If 80 percent think otherwise, their thinking is erratic," said Murtaza Husain, a 24-year-old security guard. "And that is because they have been living in a society very much overwhelmed by the American culture."
The poll said that 78 percent of the respondents supported shutting down Taliban bases in Pakistan used in efforts to overthrow the Afghan government, but 81 percent of respondents oppose U.S. missile strikes on such camps.
Washington says the Taliban is using Pakistan's tribal belt as a safe haven for launching attacks on U.S. and other western forces in Afghanistan, and has pushed Islamabad to crack down on the militants.
The U.S. has also fired more than 40 missiles at suspected militant targets in the tribal regions over the last year _ including a strike last week that killed 80 people. The drone attacks have killed many militants but have served as a rallying cry for the insurgents.
WorldPublicOpinion.org is a project involving research centers around the world that is managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.
Associated Press writers Nahal Toosi in Islamabad, Khalid Tanveer in Multan and Ashraf Khan in Karachi contributed to this report.