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US Election

Disillusioned Pakistanis loathe Obama less than Romney

Despite stark anti-US sentiment, experts say most Pakistanis would like to see Obama re-elected as president for another term. This, however, might not be in line with what the country's military establishment prefers.

Back in 2009, most Muslim countries welcomed the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American US president. In some Muslim-majority countries, Obama was looked at as a saint, a charismatic statesman who people thought would change the entire West-East discourse. Middle Eastern Muslim states also welcomed Obama - particularly his Cairo speech - in which he promised "a new beginning" in US-Muslim relations. In Pakistan, too, most people hoped that the Obama administration would be different from George W. Bush's, who many Pakistanis believed were not Muslim-friendly.

But as President Obama seeks another term in the White House and goes up against his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, his popularity in Muslim countries - including Pakistan - is lower than ever.

US President Obama (c), Pakistani President Zardari (r), and Afghan President Karzai

Obama announced a gradual troop withdrawal from Afghanistan after coming to power

For Pakistan, Obama's presidency has been much worse than Bush's. US-Pakistani ties have been at their nadir since May 2011, when American Special Forces unilaterally raided a compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad and killed former al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden, who had been hiding in the garrison town for at least six years. Although the Pakistani government hailed the assassination of bin Laden, it also expressed its displeasure over the violation of its territorial sovereignty by US forces.

There have been other incidents during Obama's presidency that have led to the deterioration of ties between Pakistan and the US. For instance, in November 2011, 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in NATO airstrikes near the Afghan border. Pakistan called it an act of aggression and blocked key NATO supply lines to Afghanistan. It also ordered United States to vacate Shamsi airbase, which was reportedly being used to carry out drone strikes against militants in Pakistan's troubles northwest.

"A lesser evil"

Anti-US sentiment is probably at its peak in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Most Pakistanis do not differentiate between the Democrats and the Republicans. For Pakistan's extremist groups, the US is a symbol of "evil," whereas even the liberal-minded Pakistanis complain about US' "interventionist" policies when it comes to Pakistan.

An unmanned US predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan
(Photo: AP Photo/ Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

The Obama administration increased drone strikes on militants in Pakistan's tribal areas

Despite that, many political experts in Pakistan say that Barack Obama is still preferable to most Pakistanis than Mitt Romney.

"I think Pakistanis would still prefer Obama as a lesser 'evil,'" Usman Qazi, a development expert in Islamabad, told DW. "The impression is based on his race, his perceived pro-Pakistani stance, and his proclamations to roll back the war in some parts of the world. On the contrary, Romney is perceived as too pro-Israeli and anti-Muslim."

"People in Muslims countries expected a bit too much from him [Obama]. I guess many of them thought that he would have a softer approach toward Muslims due to his background - which was absurd - but that is how he was perceived in Pakistan," Moazum Rauf, a writer and lecturer at the University of Lahore, told DW. "Many Pakistanis thought he would end the Afghan war immediately. That did not happen and people became disillusioned with him."

Rauf also said that the increase in US drone strikes in Pakistan also harmed his popularity in Pakistan.

Pakistani military-Republicans ties

If the common people have a soft-corner for Barack Obama and the Democrats, Pakistan's powerful army, on the other hand, prefers the Republicans.

"Historically, the Democrats have supported constitutional democracy in Pakistan, whereas the Republicans have backed military dictators," Shahram Azhar, a Pakistani economist and activist in Amherst, USA, told DW.

Former US President George W. Bush (r) is greeted by former Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad, Pakistan on March 4, 2006
(Photo: AP Photo/ Gerald Herbert)

Ex US President Bush and former Pakistani President Musharraf enjoyed 'friendly' relations

Qazi also said that the US Republican Party had been supportive of military regimes in Pakistan. "Both of them share the expansionist-strategic view in the region."

But Azhar said that relations between the Pakistani generals and the Republicans had also become bitter over the years because of Pakistan's dual role in the fight against the Taliban. Many Republican leaders believe that the Pakistani army and it spy agency - the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) - are backing the Taliban and other militant groups despite getting huge amounts of money from the US to fight them.

But observers say that it is likely that Pakistan's generals will not want to jeopardize ties with the US, particularly not with the leaders of the Republican Party.

Domestically, the ruling Pakistan People's Party - led by President Asif Ali Zardari - is believed to be more pro-Obama than the military. The Obama administration reduced military aid to Pakistan drastically after bin Laden's assassination, but it continues to provide civilian aid to the country.

Observers say that the Pakistani army relies heavily on the US and other global powers for military and economic aid. Therefore, any US government which is more inclined towards the civilian government in Islamabad is bound to offend the Pakistani military. For that reason, they say, the Pakistani army would still prefer Mitt Romney to Barack Obama.

DW.DE