Pakistani Public Opinion Appears to Turn Against Taliban

Taliban militants in Pakistan continue their attacks despite claims by experts and officials that public opinion is turning against the militant organization. At the same time, the ongoing Army offensive against the Taliban in the Swat valley has displaced more than two million people, many who now live in squalid camps. Experts in Washington are urging Pakistan to be proactive in helping the refugees before their frustration turns into anger against the government.

The chilling image was played repeatedly on TV - a man with a long beard flogging a woman.  The two minute video was purportedly shot in Swat valley when the Taliban controlled the territory.  Although its authenticity has been challenged, to the Pakistani public it underscored the group's extreme form of Islam.

In the two months since - there have been a series of bombings. Recently, thousands mourned the death of a prominent critic of the Taliban. The Muslim cleric was killed in a suicide bombing on his mosque.

Many officials and experts see the bombings and the flogging video as a tipping point.  While no scientific polls have been released, there have been repeated examples of public opinion turning against the Taliban.

"You now have clerics standing up and saying this is against the Koran," Harlan Ullman said. Ullman is a South Asia expert at the Atlantic Council in Washington. "I would hope the Pakistani government will be able to say that the Taliban and extremists are not Muslims and they are not Pakistanis.  Delegitimize them.  Get the word out. Now is the time to mobilize the public."

Shuja Nawaz, also of the Atlantic Council, says the challenge to the Taliban should come from across the political spectrum. " be able to point out that the Islam they talk about is a convoluted view, it is not the Islam as the people of Pakistan know it or want it to be," Nawaz said.

Others say the Pakistani public appears still deeply conflicted over how its government is dealing with threats from the Taliban.  Since military action began in Swat valley the number displaced by fighting has grown to 2.5 million.  Most live in camps.

Nawaz says the government should seize the moment and quickly provide relief and rebuild Swat communities."If it [the government] is not proactive this sentiment can turn against the government and create a further problem and that is a challenge," Nawaz states.

After the Pakistani earthquake in 2005, U.S. military personnel delivered relief supplies to victims.  

While the United States says it has provided nearly $165 million in assistance to people affected by the fighting, the Pakistani government has limited the reach of U.S. soldiers.

"No U.S. military personnel have been allowed to bring either supplies or surgical hospital or other assets that the U.S. military is well equipped to deliver to the people who need it," Jonah Blank said. Blank is an advisor to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, says Pakistan's approach is wrong.
Obama administration officials propose tripling the size of non military assistance for Pakistan.

But Blank says in building a long term relationship, the U.S. should also listen to Pakistan's concerns. "Whether it is about [Iraqi prison] Abu Ghraib, about Gitmo [the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay] or about the predator program [U.S. drone aircraft] or about U.S. policies in other parts of the world, we cannot simply dismiss these concerns as irrelevant to the core discussion," Blank states.

Experts say with the U.S. providing assistance at a time when opinion has turned against the Taliban, America's image among Pakistanis will improve as it did after the timely relief to earthquake victims.

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