US Forces Launch Helmand Campaign; Pakistani Public turns Against Taliban but Still Rejects US Intervention

Some 4,000 US military personnel and 650 Afghan troops are launching an assault on Taliban positions in Helmand Province, with an aim to ‘take, clear and hold’ in emulation of the counter-insurgency tactics deployed successfully in some parts of Iraq. Helmand has been a particularly violent province in recent years, and is also the major poppy-producing area of Afghanistan. Past US/Afghan government forcible poppy eradication campaigns angered local farmers and probably contributed to the increased guerrilla activity. This policy of forcible eradication has now been abandoned, though drug interdiction efforts continue. I am not sure the people the US forces in Helmand will be fighting are actually ‘Taliban’ in the sense of being seminarians loyal to Mulla Omar of Quetta.

Presumably this campaign has been launched now in anticipation of the August 20 presidential elections, which President Hamid Karzai is widely anticipated to win. The elections will require more law and order in some southern, Pushtun provinces than has recently been the case.

A new poll by worldpublicopinion.org has found that the Pakistani public has turned against the Taliban in a big way, with 81% now seeing the Taliban in the Northwest of Pakistan as a critical threat to the country. This is up from 34% in September, 2007. And some two-thirds of Pakistanis view all religious militant groups in the country as a whole as a critical threat to it. This proportion is up from 38% in September of 2007, and it is a significant shift, since a lot of Pakistanis had view the religious militants as freedom fighters for the cause of Kashmir or the liberation of Afghanistan from Western occupation.

The bad news for President Obama is that the Pakistani public’s souring on the Taliban has not resulted in higher favorability ratings for the United States. A majority does not trust Obama to do the right thing. Overwhelming majorities believe the US wants to divide and weaken the Muslim world, and 82% reject Obama’s predator drone strikes on Pakistani soil. Some 79% want the war in Afghanistan ended now.

In other words, as religious nationalism appears to have declined in Pakistan (something visible in the parliamentary elections of 2008), other forms of secular nationalism have taken its place, no less anti-imperialist in character. Pakistan was born in a struggle to throw off two centuries of British rule in South Asia, and once you go through a thing like that, having Western troops actively intervening in a Muslim neighbor is just not welcome.

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