here is an excellent article by nicholas kristof, the new york times, november 22, 2008:
Barack Obama’s most difficult international test in the next year will very likely be here in Pakistan. A country with 170 million people and up to 60 nuclear weapons may be collapsing.
Reporting in Pakistan is scarier than it has ever been. The major city of Peshawar is now controlled in part by the Taliban, and this month alone in the area an American aid worker was shot dead, an Iranian diplomat kidnapped, a Japanese journalist shot and American humvees stolen from a NATO convoy to Afghanistan.
I’ve been coming to Pakistan for 26 years, ever since I hid on the tops of buses to sneak into tribal areas as a backpacking university student, and I’ve never found Pakistanis so gloomy. Some worry that militants, nurtured by illiteracy and a failed education system, will overrun the country or that the nation will break apart. I’m not quite that pessimistic, but it’s very likely that the next major terror attack in the West is being planned by extremists here in Pakistan.
“There is real fear about the future,” notes Ahmed Rashid, whose excellent new book on Pakistan and Afghanistan is appropriately titled “Descent Into Chaos.”
The United States has squandered more than $10 billion on Pakistan since 9/11, and Pakistani intelligence agencies seem to have rerouted some of that to Taliban extremists. American forces periodically strike militants in the tribal areas, but people from those areas overwhelmingly tell me that these strikes just antagonize tribal leaders and make them more supportive of the Taliban.
One man described seeing Pashtuns in tribal areas throwing rocks in helpless frustration at the American aircraft flying overhead.
President Asif Ali Zardari seems overwhelmed by the challenges and locked in the past. Incredibly, he has just chosen for his new cabinet two men who would fit fine in a Taliban government.
One new cabinet member, Israr Ullah Zehri, defended the torture-murder of five women and girls who were buried alive (three girls wanted to choose their own husbands, and two women tried to protect them). “These are centuries-old traditions, and I will continue to defend them,” Mr. Zehri said of the practice of burying independent-minded girls alive.
Then there is Pakistan’s new education minister, Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani. Last year, the Supreme Court ordered him arrested for allegedly heading a local council that decided to solve a feud by taking five little girls and marrying them to men in an enemy clan. The girls were between the ages of 2 and 5, according to Samar Minallah, a Pakistani anthropologist who investigated the case (Mr. Bijarani has denied involvement).
While there are no easy solutions for the interlinked catastrophes unfolding in Pakistan and Afghanistan, there are several useful steps that we in the West can take to reduce the risk of the region turning into the next Somalia.
First, we should slow the financial flow to Pakistan’s government and military. If the government wants to stop the Talibanization of Pakistan, its greatest need isn’t money but the political will to stop sheltering Taliban leaders in the city of Quetta.
Second, we should cut tariffs on Pakistani agricultural and manufactured products to boost the economy and provide jobs. We should also support China on its planned export-processing zone to create manufacturing jobs in Pakistan.
Third, we should push much harder for a peace deal in Kashmir — including far more pressure on India — because Kashmir grievances empower Pakistani militants.
Fourth, let’s focus on education. One reason the country is such a mess today is that half of all Pakistanis are illiterate.
In the southern Punjab a couple of days ago, I dropped in on a rural elementary school where only one teacher had bothered to show up that day. He was teaching the entire student body under a tree, in part because the school doesn’t have desks for the first three grades.
One happy note: I visited a school run by a California-based aid group, Developments in Literacy, which represents a successful American effort to fight extremism. DIL is financed largely by Pakistani-Americans trying to “give back,” and it runs 150 schools in rural Pakistan, teaching girls in particular.
Tauseef Hyat, the Islamabad-based executive director of DIL, notes that originally the plan was to operate just primary schools, but then a group of 11-year-old girls threatened to go on hunger strike unless DIL helped them continue their education in high school. Ms. Hyat caved, and some of those girls are now studying to become doctors.
Mr. Obama should make his first presidential trip to Pakistan — and stop at a DIL school to remind Pakistan’s army and elites that their greatest enemy isn’t India but illiteracy.
further comments by kristof on the response to his article:
My Sunday column is from Pakistan, which is a mess. A scary mess, particularly in Peshawar and the tribal areas. Some Americans have pinned their hopes on President Zardari and the new army commander, General Kayani, but I don’t see much reason for hope there. As I note in the column, Zardari just chose a cabinet member who believes that burying girls alive is an honorable tradition, and another who believes in seizing little girls and handing them over to enemy clans as a way of resolving feuds. As for General Kayani, don’t forget that he headed the I.S.I. intelligence agency as it was busy protecting and supporting the Taliban.
At a personal level, I found little sign of change when I applied for my visa. The old president, Pervez Musharraf, detested me and at times denied me visas, but usually grudgingly granted them. I figured that the new government, which had always cheered my criticisms of Musharraf, would be no problem. But it took months and months to get one; my visa finally arrived on the very day I was leaving on the trip, and then it was only good for Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad (although nobody seemed to pay attention to that in Pakistan). When I applied to the president’s office by email for an interview with Zardari, the press secretary tried to forward my message to someone named Khalid whom he asked something like: Isn’t this guy Kristof blacklisted? Unfortunately, instead of hitting “forward” on his blackberry, he hit “reply,” so it came right back to me.
The larger challenge is that the Pakistani military still prepares itself for fighting India, when the country’s greatest threat is poverty, illiteracy and extremism in the west. And Pakistani elites are not typically very concerned with ordinary citizens (the former Supreme Court chief, still barred from power, was an important exception, yet the lawyers’ movement never received adequate U.S. support), so the state education system is a disaster.
In the column, I lay out some suggestions for how the U.S. might help, such as cutting tariffs to encourage jobs and manufacturing industries. I also cite Developments in Literacy, a wonderful group trying to educate girls in rural areas, as an example of what we need more of — do check out their website (it’s also an example of Pakistani elites tackling poverty, in a way that we need much more of). And I’ve previously written about the extraordinary work of Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea. I’d welcome your thoughts, particularly from Pakistanis, about other steps for the future.
(An Update: Many Indian readers are taking me to task over my suggestion that the U.S. put more pressure on Kashmir. Let me clarify that this is not just to “appease” Pakistan, but because India’s own behavior in Kashmir has often been shameful. Paying more attention to Kashmir and to human rights violations (in both Kashmirs) is not only geopolitically correct, but it’s also the right thing to do. Incidentally, I heard on this trip that Islamabad is now again allowing more Pakistani militants to infiltrate across the border into Indian Kashmir, which, if true, is a disaster that will aggravate Pakistani-Indian tensions and focus attention away from issues like education.)