COLUMNIST NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Urgent: U.S. must help turn tide in Pakistan
By Nicholas Kristof KARACHI, Pakistan -- It was the home of a Muslim religious teacher, but he was stockpiling more than copies of the Koran. His house blew up this month in a thunderous explosion that leveled much of his village and could be hea...
By Nicholas Kristof
KARACHI, Pakistan -- It was the home of a Muslim religious teacher, but he was stockpiling more than copies of the Koran. His house blew up this month in a thunderous explosion that leveled much of his village and could be heard six miles away. Police reported that he was storing explosives, rockets, grenades and suicide vests.
But perhaps what was most dispiriting was that this arsenal, apparently intended for terror attacks, was not in the tribal areas in the northwest of Pakistan where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have long conducted operations. Rather this was in the southern part of Punjab, the Pakistani heartland.
The explosion was a reminder of what some call "creeping Talibanization," even of parts of Pakistan far from the fighting. Militants seem to be putting the entire country in play, and that's one reason Pakistan should be President Barack Obama's top foreign policy challenge.
Think of it this way: It would be terrible if Afghanistan or Iraq collapsed, but it would be unthinkably catastrophic if Pakistan -- with perhaps 80 to 100 nuclear weapons -- were to fall into chaos.
Even here in Karachi, the pragmatic commercial hub of the country, extremists have taken over some neighborhoods. A Pakistani police document marked "top secret," given to me by a Pakistani concerned by the spreading tentacles of jihadis, states that Taliban agents sometimes set up armed checkpoints in one such neighborhood here.
These militants "generate funds through criminal activities like kidnapping for ransom, bank robbery, street robbery and other heinous crimes," the report says.
The mayor of Karachi, Syed Mustafa Kamal, confirms that Pashtun tribesmen have barred outsiders from entering some neighborhoods.
"I'm the mayor, and I have three vehicles with police traveling with me. And even I cannot enter these areas, or they will blow me up," Mr. Kamal said, adding, "Pakistan is in very critical condition."
Lala Hassan of the Aurat Foundation, which works on social issues, said: "There's no doubt militancy is increasing day by day, not only in Karachi but all over Pakistan."
On this trip, I also traveled in South Punjab and found it far more troubled than in my previous trips to the area. Some music shops and girls' schools have been threatened by fundamentalists, local residents said. In the city of Bahawalpur, home to a notorious militant, my interpreter asked me not even to step out of the vehicle.
The Daily Times of Pakistan described the situation as "terror's free run in South Punjab."
But the militants may have overreached. Their brutality, including the public flogging of a teenage girl, has shocked and alienated many Pakistanis. It is just possible that the tide is turning as a result.
A poll of Pakistanis released this month by WorldPublicOpinion.org found that one-third believed that the Taliban intended to gain control of all of Pakistan, but 75 percent thought that would be a bad result. Two years ago, only 34 percent of Pakistanis believed that Islamic militants constituted a "critical threat." Now, 81 percent do.
Unfortunately, the U.S. has acted in ways that have often empowered the militants. We have lavished more than $11 billion on Pakistan since Sept. 11, mostly supporting the Pakistani Army. Yet that sum has bought Pakistan no security and us no good will.
In that same poll, 59 percent of Pakistanis said that they share many of al-Qaida's attitudes toward the U.S., and almost half of those said that they support al-Qaida attacks on Americans.
One reason is that America hasn't stood up for its own values in Pakistan. Instead of supporting democracy, we cold-shouldered the lawyers' movement, which was the best hope for democracy and civil society.
If we want to stabilize Pakistan, we should take two steps. First is to cut tariffs on manufactured imports from Pakistan. That would boost the country's economy, raise employment and create good will. Cutting tariffs is perhaps the most effective step we could take to stabilize this country and fight extremism.
Second, we should redirect our aid from subsidies to the Pakistani military to support for a major education initiative. A bill in the Senate backed by Democrat John Kerry and Republican Richard Lugar would support Pakistani schools, among other nonmilitary projects, and would be an excellent step forward.
In rural Pakistan, you regularly see madrassas established by Islamic fundamentalists, typically offering free tuition, free meals and even scholarships to study abroad for the best students. It's clear that the militant fundamentalists believe in the transformative power of education -- and they have invested in schools, while we have invested in the Pakistani Army. Why can't we show the same faith in education as hard-line Muslim fundamentalists?
Kristof writes for The New York Times.