ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan seems like a Molotov cocktail waiting for a match. Its ruling elite bickers over politics, while out on the streets Taliban insurgents step up their suicide attacks. Its military plays the role of national conciliator even as it worries about Muslim revolutionaries in its own ranks. Meanwhile, the United States, Pakistan's historic friend and benefactor, is symbolized in the popular mind by unmanned drones that cruise over the western frontier assassinating Taliban militants by remote control.
Which is why two top Obama administration emissaries, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Adm. Mike Mullen, paid an urgent visit here last week to explain the administration's new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. They gathered evidence about Pakistan's crisis and explored ways to help the country move back toward stability.
A hint of Pakistan's troubles came soon after Holbrooke and Mullen arrived here. Anne Patterson, the highly regarded U.S. ambassador, had assembled some of the nation's political elite to welcome the visiting Americans. During a question-and-answer session, a shouting match erupted between a prominent backer of President Asif Ali Zardari and a supporter of dissident Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. The dispute was a snapshot of a country so busy quarreling that it is failing to solve its problems.
The next morning brought fresh evidence of the dangers facing Pakistan. Holbrooke and Mullen met a group of young tribal leaders who had traveled, at great personal risk, from Waziristan and other frontier areas. Some were dressed in the colorful turbans of the frontier; others in Western clothes. If Taliban leaders back home knew they were meeting with Obama's special envoy and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they could be killed.
"We are all Taliban," one young man said — meaning that people in his region support the cause, if not the terrorist tactics. He explained that the insurgency is spreading in Pakistan because of popular anger. For every militant killed by a U.S. Predator drone, he says, 10 more will join the insurgent cause.
"You can't come see the people because they hate you," he warned. Listening to them, you realize that "drone attack" has entered the vernacular in Urdu.
In truth, I heard more clarity from the young tribesmen than from the elite at the embassy reception. The young men advised that America should channel its aid through the tribal chiefs, known as maliks, rather than the corrupt Pakistani government. It should help train the Frontier Corps, a rough-hewn tribal constabulary, rather than rely on Pakistani army troops who are seen as outsiders. To curb the militant Islamic madrassahs, the United States should help improve the abysmal public schools in the region.
Later that day, Zardari met us at his palace. He was convincing when he discussed the legacy of his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, who was killed in December 2007 by what he called the "cancer" of Muslim terrorism. But on some major security and intelligence issues, he claimed no knowledge or sought to shift blame to others, and the overall impression was of an accidental president who still has an uncertain grasp on power.
Zardari did offer an intriguing proposal for what to do about the Predator drones. "We would appreciate it if the technology was transferred," he said, so that the Predators could become "our hammer against the (terrorist) menace. Then we could justify it." U.S. officials said Zardari's comment could offer a step forward.
As so often in pro-American countries on the brink, part of the problem here is the gap between what officials say in private and what they can admit openly. Pakistani leaders know the Predator attacks help combat the Taliban in remote Waziristan, but they don't want to seem like American lackeys. So they protest in public the very strategy they have privately endorsed. That gap has to be closed.
If there's a positive sign in all this chaos, it's that the Pakistani army isn't intervening to clean up the mess. Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the army chief of staff, has been telling the feuding politicians to get their act together. But he seems to understand that the route to stability isn't another army coup, but in making this unruly democracy work before it's too late.
David Ignatius' e-mail address is email@example.com.
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