Public Opinion in Pakistan’s Tribal Regions

Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative/Terror Free Tomorrow

Public Opinion in Pakistan’s Tribal Regions

  • By Peter Bergen and Patrick Doherty, New America Foundation, and Ken Ballen, Terror Free Tomorrow
  • Gene Thorp

    Executive Summary

    The New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow have conducted the first comprehensive public opinion survey covering sensitive political issues in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan.

    The unprecedented survey, from June 30 to July 20, 2010,consisted of face-to-face interviews of 1,000 FATA residents age 18 or older across 120 villages/sampling points in all seven tribal Agencies of FATA, with a margin of error of +/- 3 percent, and field work by the locally-based Community Appraisal & Motivation Programme. Funding for the poll was provided by the United States Institute of Peace, a congressionally funded think tank, which had no other role in the poll. The poll was conducted before the large-scale floods that have inundated Pakistan.

    Public Opposition to the U.S. Military and Drone Campaign

    Nearly nine out every ten people in FATA oppose the U.S. military pursuing al-Qaeda and the Taliban in their region. Nearly 70 percent of FATA residents instead want the Pakistani military alone to fight Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in the tribal areas.

    The intensity of opposition to the American military is high. While only one in ten of FATA residents think suicide attacks are often or sometimes justified against the Pakistani military and police, almost six in ten believe these attacks are justified against the U.S. military. (The United Nations has determined that many of the suicide attackers in Afghanistan hail from the Pakistani tribal regions.)1

    More than three-quarters of FATA residents oppose American drone strikes. Indeed, only 16 percent think these strikes accurately target militants; 48 percent think they largely kill civilians and another 33 percent feel they kill both civilians and militants. Directed by the Central Intelligence Agency, missiles are launched from unmanned drone aircraft in the FATA region of Pakistan. President Obama has dramatically ramped up the drone program, authorizing 122 so far during his administration, more than double the number authorized by President George W. Bush during his entire eight-years in office.2 This may help account for why Obama is viewed unfavorably by 83 percent of FATA residents in our poll.

    A plurality of FATA residents consider the United States to be the party most responsible for the violence that is occurring in their region today. Nearly 80 percent of the people in FATA also oppose the U.S.-led “war on terror,” and believe its real purpose is to weaken and divide the Islamic world, while ensuring American domination. Only 10 percent thought the U.S. was motivated to defeat Al-Qaeda and its allies. Similarly, three-quarters of FATA residents thought that the continuing American occupation of Afghanistan was because of its larger war on Islam or part of an effort to secure oil and minerals in the region. 11 percent said it was because of the 9/11 attacks, and just 5 percent to prevent the Taliban from returning to power.

    FATA Residents Reject Al-Qaeda and the Taliban

    Opposition to American policies in the region does not mean, however, that the people of FATA embrace either Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. More than three-quarters of FATA residents oppose the presence inside their region of Al-Qaeda and over two-thirds the Pakistan Taliban (60 percent oppose the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar). Indeed, if Al-Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban were on the ballot in an election, less than one percent of FATA residents said they would vote for either group.

    FATA Residents Want Different American Policies in the Region

    What is interesting about our findings, however, is that the intense opposition to the U.S. military and the drone program is not based on general anti-American feelings.  Almost three-quarters of the people inside the tribal regions said that their opinion of the United States would improve if the U.S. increased visas for FATA residents and educational scholarships to America, withdrew the American military from Afghanistan or brokered a comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians. A majority even said their opinions of the U.S. would improve a great deal. Two-thirds said that policies such as American aid for education and medical care would improve their opinions as well.

    This dramatic willingness to think better of the America demonstrates a notable lack of deep-seated hostility. For many FATA residents, opposition to the U.S. is based on current American military policy, not any intractably held anti-American beliefs.

    FATA Residents Decisively Back the Pakistani Army

    While the United States’ military, as well as Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters, enjoy little popular support in the region, the people overwhelmingly support the Pakistani Army. Nearly 70 percent back the Pakistani military pursuing Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the Tribal Areas. By a significant margin, the most popular individual among the people of FATA is General Ashfaq ParvezKayani, the Pakistani Army Chief of Staff. And even though American drone attacks are strongly opposed, the public’s approval of the drones program actually almost splits even if those attacks were carried out by the Pakistani military instead. Indeed, when asked how FATA should be governed, 79 percent say it should be governed by the Pakistani military, followed by FATA becoming a separate province of Pakistan (70 percent). Becoming part of Afghanistan was the most unpopular choice.

    Priorities of the people of FATA are Unemployment and Education

    Unemployment is very high in FATA, with only 20 percent of respondents in our survey saying they were working full-time. Indeed, lack of jobs was chosen as the most important problem in the region by 95 percent of those surveyed.  This was closely followed by lack of schools, good roads and security, poor health care and corruption of local official officials. Lesser problems to be addressed in descending order of importance were: drone attacks, Taliban and foreign fighters and problems involving refugees.

    Despite the reputation that the people in FATA are socially conservative, nine out of every ten people identified lack of education and schools as their most important problem. Indeed, building new schools was chosen as a high priority for both boys and girls.

    In terms of administering justice in the tribal regions, the least popular option was having justice delivered by the Taliban, with only 12 percent believing this to be very important. By contrast, nearly two-thirds chose be governed by local tribal leaders.

    Views of FATA residents are not inconsistent with past Terror Free Tomorrow/New America surveys of Pakistanis generally, though the intensity of opposition to the U.S. military inside FATA is significantly higher.

    For the rest of this report, including charts of selected key findings, methodology, topline questions, and demographics, please click here.

    1 United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, “Suicide attacks in Afghanistan,” September 9, 2007,

    2 As of September 24, 2010. Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, “The Year of the Drone,” New America Foundation, September 24, 2010,

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