The Monitor's View

A Swat down for Pakistan – and Obama

Zardari learns how not to deal with jihadists while the US weighs how to play the bully.

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As a candidate in 2008, Barack Obama criticized George W. Bush for giving billions in aid to Pakistan even as that country made "peace treaties with the Taliban."

Now in the Oval Office, Mr. Obama has learned how easy it is for Pakistan, a democratic but Muslim country, to ignore US pleas and take its money – while it simply keeps coddling Islamic militants.

Last week, the US was helping line up $5.3 billion in new development aid from foreign donors for Pakistan. This week, Richard Holbrooke, special US envoy to the region, was trying to persuade Congress to increase US development aid to Pakistan. But at the same time, President Asif Ali Zardari was hailing a deal that allowed the Taliban to impose harsh Islamic law – including public floggings – in the country's Swat Valley.

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In essence, Pakistan gave up territory to Muslim militants.

The deal reveals a strange unwillingness by Pakistan's 500,000-strong Army to confront the violent jihadists that pose an existential threat to this country's democracy, just as Al Qaeda's headquarters in Pakistan still pose a threat to the West.

Hawkish leaders in the Army remain too focused on a perceived threat from India and not on the jihadists along the western border with Afghanistan. This misplaced nationalism comes at the expense of Pakistan's democracy.

The government's appeasement of the Taliban also reflects an ambivalence about suppressing a group that the Army helped create in Afghanistan during the 1990s as a strategic tool. Pakistan may still want to retain ties to the Taliban in its jockeying with India and the US.

In sealing the deal last week, President Zardari likely took a cue from the Obama administration in its eagerness for Afghanistan to talk with factions of the Taliban in that country. But alas, Zardari soon discovered that Islamic fanatics don't make good partners.

Instead of laying down their arms as promised, the Taliban used the stand down of Pakistani forces in Swat to take over ever-larger areas. The 6,000 to 8,000 fighters even came within 60 miles of the nation's capital this week.

Rightly so, this close call with an Islamic takeover of a nuclear-armed state of 170 million Muslims set off alarm bells in Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Pakistan was "basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists" while Obama dispatched the Pentagon's top military chief to Islamabad.

Pakistan then responded weakly by sending some forces back into the area, while the Taliban, having made its point about its potency, appeared to make a strategic retreat.

Pakistanis prefer democracy, but many also decry the country's widespread lapse in the rule of law. Justice is hard to come by for common folk and many, especially along the border with Afghanistan, welcome the strict social controls that Islamic fanatics offer.

A country cannot have two types of rule – theocracy vs. democratic rights and freedoms – let alone rival governments. The two are radically different concepts about the role of the individual and how to organize society.

Pakistanis must make a choice. They need only look to Iran to see how Islamic authoritarianism has made a sham of democratic ideals.

And the US, too, needs to decide how much pressure to place on Pakistan to make that choice. Attaching strings to aid could backfire by playing to Pakistani nationalism. Obama must be careful not to act like a bully while at the same time quietly nudging Pakistani leaders to reform their courts, police, and politics.

In the past three years, Islamic militants have stepped up their vicious attacks on civilians within Pakistan. Now that the Swat deal has revealed the Taliban's duplicity and its rough sense of justice, the choice for Pakistan is even clearer.

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