- The Washington Times - Friday, June 5, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke’s visit this week to Pakistan amid the army’s offensive to retake Swat and the humanitarian necessity of coping with some 3 million or more refugees underscores what could be an unprecedented opportunity to turn conditions in Pakistan around.

We all know Pakistan’s economy is a mess. Insurgencies have been raging. And its current government has been accused of being incapable of governing.

Pakistan went through the shock of having its most popular politician, Benazir Bhutto, assassinated 1 1/2 years ago and making the difficult transition to a democratic government led by Mrs. Bhutto’s widower, current President Asif Ali Zardari.

While off to a promising start, the new government has stumbled in dealing with these daunting economic and security crises, as is often the case during the first years of any administration. In addition, the November attacks in Mumbai set back hopes for a Pakistan-India rapprochement and brought the neighboring states into a new confrontation. But all this could be reversed once the opportunity that has been created is fully recognized.

Earlier this year, the Pakistani government was forced to sign a truce ceding control of Swat to Taliban elements. Conventional wisdom argued that the Pakistani army was simply unwilling to intervene given the defeats it had suffered in attempting to wrest control of Swat from insurgents. However, had the agreement not been signed, the government would likely have fallen.

Reality made little difference. Reactions to this agreement in the United States were extremely harsh, including accusations of Pakistani government appeasement. Some in Congress suggested withholding U.S. aid until Islamabad changes its mind.

Predictably, the truce failed. While he may get little credit for what followed, Mr. Zardari had insisted that the agreement be approved by the full National Assembly. Hence, the government had no option except to mobilize the military once the Taliban rejected the terms. The army moved back into Swat. As of this writing, most of the Taliban have retreated, and the government is largely in control.

At the same time, there has been a seismic shift in Pakistani public opinion. There is near-universal condemnation of the Taliban and its rule in Swat, and, according to most polls, a strong majority of Pakistanis support military action. At least two factors have changed Pakistani hearts and minds.

First, the atrocities by the Taliban in beheading and murdering civilians have gotten out of hand. Second, the video of a young girl being savagely beaten by Taliban has had the effect of the images of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. A line has been crossed, and for the first time in a decade, the government has the support of its public against the terrorists.

Hence, a huge opportunity has been created. If the Pakistani government can create a strategy and campaign plan and mobilize the resources, it can defeat the Taliban insurgency. However, its military is stretched thin. It does not have the equipment needed to fight and win a counterinsurgency war. Here, the United States can and must help both in dramatically accelerating the transfer of equipment and in facilitating talks with India to defuse the perceptions of threat from that direction.

Clearly, more than military action is needed. The some 3 million or so refugees must be afforded aid. Otherwise, this mass of displaced Pakistanis will become a ticking time bomb. That requires money, a commodity Pakistan sorely lacks not only in dealing with what could be the greatest humanitarian crisis since partition in 1947, but also in turning its flagging economy around.

There must be a highly visible campaign to discredit and delegitimize the Taliban, rally the clergy and declare anyone using terror and violence both a non-Muslim and non-Pakistani. This is essential to keep public support on the side of the government and against the insurgents. Meanwhile, Pakistan must have the resources to increase its police and security forces, who will maintain law and order once the army cleans out the insurgents.

Whether this is a bit of luck in Swat or planning by the Islamabad government, an opportunity of perhaps unprecedented proportions has been created in Pakistan.

If the insurgency can be dispatched or at least put on the run, that will have huge positive consequences for Afghanistan and the arrival of some 20,000 more American forces. Also, success against the Taliban will provide the credibility the democratic government needs in taking further steps to keep Pakistan moving in the right direction.

Seize the moment - it may be a last opportunity to turn the tide in Pakistan.

Harlan Ullman’s last book was “America’s Promise Restored: Preventing Culture, Crusade and Partisanship From Wrecking Our Nation.”

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