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Pakistan Poll: 66% Say the Man Killed by U.S. Forces Was Not Osama Bin Laden

Where is Osama bin Laden? If you're reading this in the Western hemisphere, then your first guess is probably the bottom of the Indian Ocean. If you're in Pakistan, however, where the self-avowed leader of al Qaeda was tracked down last week and killed in a fire-fight with U.S. Special Forces, then you might think otherwise.

YouGov, the global opinion pollster, in association with Polis at Cambridge University, conducted a survey in Pakistan shortly after bin Laden's demise, using a recruited online sample (therefore focusing on more educated respondents among the three big cities, Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore). The fact that this survey excluded rural and less educated demographic groups actually makes the results more striking: according to the YouGov poll, a staggering 66% of Pakistanis think the person who was killed by U.S. Navy Seals in the compound outside Islamabad was not bin Laden.

It would be a mistake, however, to confuse this with generalized sympathy for the man. Survey results also suggest that Pakistan was an imperfect hiding place for the world's most wanted outlaw:

  • 48% of Pakistanis say bin Laden was not a true Muslim leader.
  • 35% believe he was a mass murderer of Muslims, compared with 42% who disagree.
  • 35% think he actually declared war on Pakistan, with 45% who disagree.
  • Roughly half of all respondents feel negative about the idea of an association between Pakistan's national intelligence agency (the ISI) and al Qaeda.

In other words, Osama bin Laden is neither outright hero nor downright villain in the Pakistani public square. What is clear, however, is a consensus of distrust towards the American version of reality, and a majority who oppose U.S. policies in the region:

  • 75% of respondents disapprove of U.S. actions in hunting bin Laden on Pakistani soil.
  • Less than a quarter think he authorized the 9/11 attacks.
  • 74% believe the US government does not respect Islam and considers itself at war with the Muslim world.
  • 70% object to the Pakistani government's policy of accepting economic aid from the U.S.
  • 86% oppose the government's allowing, or having allowed, US drone attacks on militant groups.

YouGov is still in the process of growing its polling access to be fully nationally representative of Pakistan. Suffice it say, results so far suggest that majority opinion in Pakistan is walking a complex third way between the narratives of both White House policymakers and militant leaders.

Take the Taliban, for instance: 61% either have sympathy for the Taliban or believe they represent views that should be respected, compared with only 21% who flatly oppose them. A majority also contends, however, that the Pakistani government should use every means at its disposal to push them out of Pakistan and keep them out. Put another way, Pakistanis broadly sympathize with the Taliban's right to exist and have political influence. But similar numbers also want them out of Pakistan.

Pakistani public opinion equally challenges the popular scare-scenarios of both Western and Pakistani defense establishments. By far the most acute fear of Western policymakers looking at the region is that close ties between the country's intelligence services and al Qaeda could become the basis for a coup that puts militant extremists or their sympathizers in control of the country's embryonic nuclear arsenal. A significant portion of Pakistani public opinion refutes these allegations of close associations between the ISI and al Qaeda, with 56% saying they don't believe it, next to only 12% who do. Pakistanis also embrace the expansion of their nuclear arsenal, rather than fear it, with 81% who support the government's policy of producing nuclear weapons.

Pakistanis similarly appear to reject some of the core preoccupations of their own security forces. It's no secret that large portions of American and international aid, meant for supporting the fight against terrorism, has been channeled by the defense establishment since 2001 into traditional armaments aimed at potential conflict with India. Tensions have simmered between Pakistan and India as two rival centers of Asian power since British-controlled India was originally partitioned to provide Indian Muslims with a state of their own. These dynamics underscore the rationale by which elements of the ISI have supposedly continued to support the Taliban in Afghanistan, as a bulwark against potential power vacuums that could be filled by their Indian rival. Public opinion, meanwhile, fails to reflect this same preoccupation. While Pakistani defense officials fixate on the threat of India, the issue ranks low for the general population on the list of perceived threats to Pakistan, behind corruption, the United State and foreign militants.

A majority of respondents also challenge Western depictions of a now weakened al Qaeda. 86% expect the violence from extremist groups to remain constant or increase in Pakistan following recent events in Abbottabad and 82% predict similar outcomes for Afghanistan. Over half think that the celebrations in the US following the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden will incite further violence against the US. These attitudes point to a potential new challenge for Western policymakers, namely that bin Laden might become more useful to groups such as al Qaeda now that he's dead. His star had been arguably waning in rhetorical terms across the Islamic world for the last half decade, as pan-Arabic calls for democracy followed the Sunni rejection of al Qaeda in Iraq and the fragmentation of the Afghan insurgency into ever more parochial factions. As regional experts such as Ed Hussain now warn us, bin Laden's death may rehabilitate his status as the mythological archenemy of Washington, and even promote him to a new kind martyred icon, despite U.S. efforts to hide his body and prevent the emergence of a 'Laden shrine."

This is not to say that Pakistanis are fixated on the issue of militant extremism. Survey results equally show that if the preoccupation of Western governments in Pakistan is counter-terrorism, then the single largest preoccupation of Pakistani people themselves is the problem of corruption. When asked what the main priorities of the Pakistani government should be, eliminating corruption came a clear top of the list, followed by education and literacy, economic growth and employment. Only then, in fifth place out of eight, came reducing terrorism, followed by political stability, healthcare and improving relations with India. By a similar token, when asked what democratic values they would most like to see improve in Pakistan, respondents ranked a transparent judicial system top of the list, followed by equal rights.

Interestingly for the bigger picture, this emphasis on "equal rights" fails to translate into support for gender equality or women's rights. Reactions to the now infamous decision of the Pakistani Supreme Court to acquit five men originally accused of raping Mukhtar Mai were closely divided, with 36% in support of the verdict, while 23% were neutral and 25% disagreed. These numbers underscore an important caveat with broader implications, as Western policymakers pledge to guide the Muslim world towards a more liberal, pro-Western form of modernity. Even if politicians succeed in fostering a peaceful modern state of Pakistan -- or Egypt or Tunisia or Libya -- the growing empowerment of peoples across the Arab-Islamic world also means the expansion of certain principles and values that are inimical to the traditional motifs of Western liberal society, from social codes of shame and honor to intrinsic tendencies towards gender inequality and a closer relationship between church and state.

Accordingly, watch this space for more YouGov studies on the bigger picture of the Arab Spring over the coming months.

Fieldwork was undertaken May 4-5, 2011. The survey was carried out online and is broadly representative of the online population in Pakistan. Total sample size was 1,039 Pakistani residents.