Lost in the brouhaha of Pakistan-FATA-Afghanistan and talk of Pakistani surrender to flat-earth clerics is the single most important statistic about one of the world's eight nuclear powers: 63 percent of Pakistan's 173 million people do not know how to read or write, or well over 100 million dirt-poor, illiterate people. And only 26 percent of women are literate.
Next door in Afghanistan the stats are even grimmer: Only 18.7 percent of males and 2.8 percent of women qualify as literate.
In Pakistan, for the government to concede victory to Islamist extremists, along with a license to impose Shariah law in the Swat Valley, Pakistan's favorite tourist destination, was the line of least resistance. With little hope for material improvement over a lifetime, the average Pakistani is quickly seduced by what he or she hears in the mosques on Fridays and on some 50 TV channels about the wicked imperialists — the United States, India, and Israel — and their plans to either harm or destroy Islam.
An alarming number of Pakistanis believe that Sept. 11, 2001, was a plot engineered by a CIA-Mossad-RAW (Research and Analysis Wing, India's main intelligence agency) conspiracy designed to provide the imperialists with a gigantic provocation that then justified war against Afghanistan's religious dictatorship.
Now almost daily, Pakistanis hear news about a U.S. unmanned Predator attack in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that killed innocent civilians. There is a seemingly endless parade on local TV news of dead Pakistanis, victims of a Predator missile fired by remote control from the control cockpit on the ground in Nevada.
Pakistani TV is to news what bumper stickers are to jihad. If there were Oscars for self-delusion, Pakistanis would sweep the field. Some 1,500 people a year in recent years have been killed by suicide bombers and other acts of terrorism. Every major city has been victim of suicide violence. Recruiting teenage boys for trips to another world is the easy part.
The pro-American stance of the civilian government, led by Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the late Benazir Bhutto, is understandably unpopular among the masses.
Virulent anti-Americanism took root with the U.S. failure to come to Pakistan's aid during the Bangladesh crisis in 1971. This was when Pakistan lost half its country. And this was also the loss that convinced the Pakistanis they should give top priority to the development of a nuclear weapon, which, in turn, provoked the United States into imposing tough diplomatic, economic, and military sanctions.
The 20 percent of Pakistanis who are the Western-oriented, educated class are not hostile to America, simply uneasy with a relationship that has led to U.S. bombings in FATA and an Afghan war that is spreading without any end in sight.
They also can see that their own fragile democracy appears to be heading back to a military takeover. The army is anxious to stay out of politics, but Zardari's inexplicably harmful actions may leave the army no choice.
Zardari suddenly imposed federal rule — i.e., his own — on Punjab province and dismissed its provincial government, which followed a Supreme Court ruling that disqualified from public office his principal opponent, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, now the country's most popular political leader, as well as Sharif's brother Shahbaz, the province's chief minister.
Punjab is Pakistan's political heartland and the largest of its four provinces. Lahore, the provincial capital, is also Pakistan's cultural center. And this latest opportunity for settling scores in the streets erupted as top Pakistani and Afghan officials met in Washington with their U.S. counterparts to put the relationship on a sounder basis — with $7.5 billion over five years for nonmilitary aid and $1 billion to hunt down Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in FATA.
Pakistan asked the United States to turn over control of the unmanned drones that are bombing Taliban and al-Qaida targets in FATA. With Pakistan Muslim League partisans of the two Sharif brothers battling Zardari's Pakistan People's Party supporters in the streets of Lahore, all bets were off again as the country's two leading political figures side-slipped back to the 1990s. This was when their political parties kept toppling each other until army chief Pervez Musharraf staged a coup in 1999 — and dispatched Nawaz Sharif into exile in Saudi Arabia.
Once again, Nawaz Sharif and Zardari were fighting, not for good governance, but for political survival. Obama administration calls for more decisive action against Islamist extremists suddenly appeared to be the least of their concerns.
Several Washington think tanks rushed into production with agendas to be unveiled, as army chiefs and foreign ministers from Pakistan and Afghanistan huddled in Washington for a series of trilateral and bilateral meetings with U.S. counterparts.
Engineered by Ambassador at Large Richard Holbrooke and CENTCOM commander Gen. David H. Petraeus, the meetings were designed to hammer out a common strategy to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan and take down its safe havens, along with al-Qaida's, in FATA.
As Zardari himself put it recently, "We (the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) are losing the battle." There was little trust among the four and little agreement on what the final objective should be in Afghanistan. It was now Obama's war and could become Obama's Vietnam.
Law enforcement sources in the capital of Pakistan's North-West Frontier province told us the Swat Valley surrender to Islamist extremists could embolden them to seize government offices and police stations in Peshawar and then battle it out against the army, which would quickly tire of killing civilians. After the Swat accord on the imposition of Shariah law, the army that had been fighting religious zealots for a year went back to its barracks.
Much also depends on the Taliban's military plans for the spring and summer. A "Tet-type" offensive against two or three large Afghan towns simultaneously, even if successfully repulsed, would kill what little public support still exists in NATO Europe for staying the course of 5,500 kilometers "out of area."
A NATO withdrawal, leaving the United States alone to fend off the Taliban, would 1) kill NATO and 2) give al-Qaida manna from Allah. What it will do to Barack Obama's congressional majority in the 2010 election cycle is still anyone's guess.
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