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U.S. Should Help Pakistan's Zardari Become a Maliki

U.S. Should Help Pakistan's Zardari Become a Maliki

Mort Kondracke - April 17, 2009

As the peril in Pakistan deepens, the United States has little choice but to bolster that country's weak democratic government to the max.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has made serious governing mistakes, but he's firmly anti-terrorist and might yet prove to be as capable of governing as Iraq's Nuri al-Maliki, whose capacity was widely doubted at one time.

However,  U.S. help for Pakistan needs to be more effective because the country's public and media increasingly blame the U.S. for their problems rather than the real enemy: violent Islamic extremists.

Pakistani officials say the U.S. needs to speed up delivery of $900 million in promised economic and military assistance and increase future aid.

This week in Japan, U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke is trying to raise $4.5 billion to $5 billion at a multination "friends of Pakistan" conference, but "pledges" need to be turned into real aid.

And, rather than stopping Predator missile attacks against Taliban targets, officials say, the U.S. should make the Pakistani military a partner in picking targets and publicizing successful strikes.

Predator-fired attacks, Pakistanis say, have increasingly been pinpointed against auto convoys, not residences, but extremists portray them - without refutation from the U.S. or Pakistani government - as killing innocent civilians.

The most menacing late development in Pakistan was Zardari's signing a parliamentary act - passed almost unanimously-ratifying a deal with Taliban leaders that placed the Swat region north of the nation's capital, Islamabad, under sharia, strict Islamic law.

Zardari's line is that he did so "reluctantly," but members of his party voted for it, and his prime minister defended the pact as ending violence and, possibly, splitting Taliban "extremists" from "moderates."

In fact, it was an act of appeasement that is leading to a dangerous widening of extremist power.

For months, the Pakistani military had been fighting militants who terrorized the region. Failing to defeat them, the government gave in to their demands.

Since February, when the deal was struck, the Taliban has tightened its control through floggings, intimidation and killings. It has also opened new training camps for jihadist fighters.

Last week, the Taliban launched raids in the neighboring Buner district, only 60 miles from Islamabad, and one Taliban leader declared his goal was to capture the capital.

As the New York Times reported Tuesday, Taliban forces allied with al-Qaida also are making inroads in southern Punjab province, home to half the population.

In March, extremists attacked a motorcade carrying Sri Lanka's cricket team in Lahore, Punjab's capital. The Times reported that intimidation is spreading throughout the region.

Islamist parties drew scant support in last year's elections, and polls show strong disapproval for the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Zardari, whose wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated by militants, has declared war on extremism, and Pakistan's army has suffered thousands of casualties.

But Zardari also has wasted precious political capital battling political foes, chiefly another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

And Zardari is being portrayed in the increasingly nationalist Urdu-language media as a "lackey" of the U.S.

Last month, the editor of the English language Daily Times, the country's leading national paper, wrote that "most Pakistanbbis think that the war on terror is America's war, not theirs, and that if America were to simply pack its bags and quit Afghanistan, the Taliban and al-Qaida would melt away and peace would automatically return."

Editor Najam Sethi wrote in the Middle East Bulletin that "this view is reinforced" by Pakistan's dominant Urdu-language television and newspapers, whose rich owners have personal economic stakes in the U.S. and Britain.

However, he wrote, "they are pandering to the lowest common denominator - hatred of the United States, sympathy for the Taliban, emphasis on religiosity, hatred of India" to attract readers, viewers and advertising revenue.

In January, for instance, the newspaper Daily Jang ran an article titled "Obama the Murderer," arguing that America's aim is to take over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

The News, another Urdu paper, alleged that a terrorist attack on Islamabad's Marriott Hotel last September was justified because three U.S. Marines were inside, allegedly conducting a mysterious covert operation.

What should the U.S. do to keep Pakistan from falling to extremists and providing them a nuclear-armed base for operations against the West?

Sethi wrote that "the only serious option ... is to continue to support democratic efforts in Pakistan, strengthen its economy, train its troops in counter-insurgency strategies and, most of all, help empower the liberal mainstream."

The U.S. has bought a half-hour per day for Voice of America broadcasts on Pakistani television, but it would help if the U.S. funneled funds to Pakistani moderates to counter Taliban propaganda.

By law, U.S. aid must be distributed through U.S. contractors, resulting in lengthy delays in its delivery. One new training base, at Warsak, took two years to open.

The U.S. won't provide Pakistan's air force with laser-guided bombs, so it drops "dumb" bombs on Taliban targets, sometimes causing "collateral damage."

Conspiracy-minded Pakistanis constantly are looking for evidence - whether it exists or not - that the U.S. might abandon Zardari either in favor of Sharif or a military coup.

Neither plot is real. U.S. officials view Sharif as untrustworthy - as prime minister in the 1990s, he tried to impose sharia law nationwide - and are not anxious to repeat the rule of former dictator Pervez Musharraf.

So, Zardari is all there is - and he was installed by a democratic process. He is unpopular, but so was Maliki, who successfully suppressed Shiite rival Muqtada al-Sadr and emerged in Iraq's recent elections as its dominant political figure.

Could Zardari become "another Maliki'? The U.S. has few other options than to help him be one.

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Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill since 1955. © 2007 Roll Call, Inc.

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