27 January 2010

Understanding Support for Militancy in Pakistan

Stability in Pakistan is in the fundamental interest of (at least most of) the global security community. And militancy is widely regarded as the most serious and present threat to that stability. Pew regularly conducts and reports on surveys of Pakistani public opinion. Policymakers and analysts also have their own set of working assumptions. As with all policy decisions our understanding and assumptions about the problem will affect, if not drive, our strategy and intervention. A recent study by Jacob N. Shapiro, an Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and Codirector of the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project, and C. Christine Fair, Assistant Professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University casts doubt upon some of the most common assumptions about support for militancy in Pakistan. It is based on survey data from less than a thousand Pakstanis and carries its own set of limitations, but it nevertheless raises some very important questions.


The study is based on survey data from a representative sample of urban Pakistanis. Survey development was done jointly by United States Institute of Peace and the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), and was conducted by A.C. Nielsen Pakistan.

Nine hundred seven (907) face-to-face interviews were conducted with urban Pakistanis in nineteen cities between September 12 to September 28, 2007. This was before President Pervez Musharraf declared a six-week state of emergency on November 2007 and three months before the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The sample was designed to be broadly representative of urban Pakistani adults aged eighteen and older. The overall response rate was 35 percent. (p.94)

How did they measure support for militancy?

Because Pakistanis are understandably reluctant to say they support groups such as al-Qaida when being questioned by someone noting their answers on a clipboard, we could not directly inquire about support for militant groups. Instead, we asked our respondents about the extent to which the activities of the following six groups posed a threat to “the vital interests of Pakistan in the next ten years”: Sindhi nationalists in Pakistan; Mohajir nationalists in Pakistan; Baluch nationalists in Pakistan; Islamist militants and local Taliban in the FATA and settled areas; al-Qaida; and askari tanzeems in Pakistan. (p. 96)

The study sought to examine empirically the notion that "support for militancy" is a dichotomous phenomenon among Pakistanis; that is that militancy is a "homogeneous phenomenon" and a tactical monolith; you're either for it or against it.

Analysts tend to describe militancy in Pakistan as a homogeneous phenomenon, or they tend to focus on a particular group presumed responsible for a particular attack. Popular accounts generally fail to note the differences across Pakistan’s militant groups, typically casting them all as al-Qaida affiliates. Because understanding the variation in support across militant groups requires at least understanding the potentially salient differences between them, this section describes key differences between the three groups of greatest concern to Western analysts: al-Qaida, the Taliban, and the diverse “askari tanzeems,” (militant groups), which claim to focus mostly on the Kashmir issue but are also involved in sectarian violence. (p. 85)

They then outlined four commonly held assumptions about militancy in Pakistan to be investigated empirically in the survey data.

Most discussions of the politics of militancy in Pakistan rest on a series of four widely accepted views about who supports militancy and why. The first is that poverty is a root cause of support for militancy, or at least that poorer and less educated individuals are more prone to militants’ appeals. This is a view that is held within and without Pakistan. The second is that personal religiosity and support for sharia law are strongly correlated with support for Islamist militancy. The third is that support for political goals espoused by legal Islamist parties predicts support for militant organizations. The fourth is that those who support democracy—either in terms of supporting democratic processes such as voting or in terms of valuing core democratic principles—oppose Islamism and militancy. (p.89)

Shapiro and Fair's results run counter to each of the popular assumptions. They found the following:

  • Pakistanis are discriminating connoisseurs of militancy, and are selective in their support.

..support for militant organizations is not correlated across different types of militant groups. This finding suggests that Pakistanis distinguish among providers of political violence.

  • Poverty and economic performance - at least at a national level - did not predict support for militancy.

...there is no clear connection between subjective or objective measures of economic strength and lower levels of support for the Taliban and al- Qaida. Contrary to common expectations, we found that respondents who come from economically successful areas or who believe Pakistan is doing well relative to India economically are more likely to support askari tanzeems. Thus, popular prescriptions that Pakistanis will support normalization of relations with India when they feel confident in their country’s economic and other measures of national power are not supported by these findings. (p. 115-116)

  • Religious fervor itself did not appear to drive support for militancy.

.... religiosity is a poor predictor of support for militant organizations. A preference for more sharia law does not predict support for militant organizations. What does predict such support is a desire for change—positive or negative—in the perceived role of sharia in Pakistan. Similarly, identifying strongly as a Muslim does not predict support for Taliban militants fighting in Afghanistan or for al-Qaida. Although Islamic identity does predict support for askari tanzeems, the correlation disappears once we control for respondents’ support for other groups. Whatever the common factor driving support for all these militant organizations is, it is not religion per se. {italics added} Rather, underlying political considerations appear to be what is driving support.

  • Faith in or support for democracy is not strongly related to Taliban support.

... we found no discernible relationship between respondents’ faith in democracy or support for core democratic rights and their disapproval of the Taliban or al-Qaida. These findings suggest that the much-heralded call for democratization as a palliative for militancy may be unfounded.(p. 116)


The study samples only urban Pakistanis (36% of the population). While urban areas may be the hub for militant recruiting, the results may not represent the views of rural Pakistanis.

The authors note that studying "support for militancy" addresses only the demand side of the problem, not the supply side. They also insightfully observe that no empirical data currently exist "that support the presumption—inherent in most surveys of Pakistanis’ views on these and related subjects—that decreases in the demand for support for militancy translates into a reduction of Islamist violence."


  • Support for militancy is Pakistan may be more nuanced and complex than many analysts so far have suggested.
  • Further empirical research may support efforts to better understand and address the root causes of militant support.
  • Further research and analysis should systematically study the outcome/effects/impacts of policies and actions on both the supply of and demand for violence. That research should include examinations of how reductions or changes in the demand for support for militancy affect actual rates of Islamist violence.

US efforts to counter militant support have so-far emphasized economic development, and democratization, in the context of religious fervor. The authors conclude with this somewhat provocative notion:

Taken together, these results suggest that commonly prescribed solutions to Islamist militancy—economic development, democratization, and the like—may be irrelevant at best and might even be counterproductive.

ResearchBlogging.orgShapiro, J., & Fair, C. (2010). Understanding Support for Islamist Militancy in Pakistan International Security, 34 (3), 79-118 DOI: 10.1162/isec.2010.34.3.79