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Bring 'people power' to Pakistan

US aid and troops alone won't stabilize the country. But a campaign to unleash Pakistan's positive civic energy could.

By Rick Barton / May 19, 2009


How should the United States respond to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Pakistan? In a proudly sovereign country of 165 million people, billions of US dollars and thousands of US troops will not produce the necessary change. Instead, America should put its new commitment to "smart power" into practice: Success will depend on galvanizing the burgeoning power of popular opinion to bring about reform.

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There have been positive developments in Pakistan recently, which should be supported. The 2008 elections and the lawyers' movement showed that popular will can overcome corrupt practices and unconstitutional traditions. The elections resulted in a civilian-led, coalition government. The restoration of the suspended judges following months of demonstrations and endless news coverage reaffirmed the dynamic link between the people and reform.

When the people and a purpose are publicly aligned, change is possible – even when faced with violent extremism, as with the Taliban syndicate in Pakistan.

Examples of large-scale public rejection of intimidation, bloodletting, and oppression abound. In Palermo, Sicily, the Mafia lost its hold when Italians took to the streets to reject it in 1992. In the Philippines, "people power" removed Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. In Ukraine, the "Orange Revolution" reversed rigged elections in 2005, and in Lebanon, the March 14 movement cleared the country of Syrian forces in 2005. In Belgrade, weeks-long demonstrations finally removed Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

Whether organized by text messages, local radio, word of mouth, or student groups, the people braved the bullets and tear gas and turned out. Last year, the Facebook campaign of a single young Colombian, Oscar Morales, became viral, with up to 2 million citizens joining forces in public rallies against narcotrafficking and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Pakistan could experience a similar awakening. The country has seen a dramatic expansion of television networks, cellphones, blogs, and other media in recent years. With millions of Pakistanis living all over the world, the country is both globally sophisticated and yet strangely feudal. Trade and cultural exchanges with India, Afghanistan, and China have expanded possibilities, despite concerns.