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.

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.

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.

Even with advances, there is today an urgent need for change. Not only is violence spreading in Pakistan, but the political process continues to be dominated by powerful families, the judicial system is still unresponsive to violations of the law, and key institutions such as the military and the intelligence services are the recipients of too many special privileges.

How could the United States help mobilize a responsible public outcry for change? Consider the example of Java in 1999. Indonesian mobs were burning down Chinese businesses, homes, and churches, and the country faced an existential crisis. With the skilled encouragement and overt funding of the American Embassy and USAID, a group of Indonesian civil society leaders fashioned a powerful series of television commercials that prompted positive, peaceful alternatives. For less than $5 million, 210 million people were shown a better path. The US supported – but did not control – the message.

Imagine a video and film campaign on many of Pakistan's 35 television networks that mourned the lost lives of innocent victims and elevated the heroism of first responders and local officials. Just the stories of those faithful Pakistanis who were killed in the Marriott hotel bombing last year alone would generate massive revulsion against terrorism. Denial could no longer be the convenient response.

Imagine drowning out the Taliban's message by ramping up community radio stations and local service groups. On a recent visit to Pakistan, my colleagues and I at the Center for Strategic and International Studies identified dozens of well-run, highly organized local groups competing for the exact slice of society the Taliban and other extremists seek to recruit. All of them could do far more with increased funding. These Pakistani-led civic groups already enjoy broad public acceptance based on their good works – the kind of trust association that America must reinforce.

Public mobilization is fast and agile, reaching directly into society and avoiding bureaucratic and governmental delays. It is safe, spreading activity at every level and making retribution more difficult. It is viral, creating a positive energy and course of action for a public and press eager to escape paralysis. Finally, it helps create leaders.

Smart power can advance the peaceful, democratic dreams of Pakistanis. There will be a need for direct fiscal, developmental, and security assistance, but almost nothing succeeds without the major involvement of the people. America's open and respectful encouragement of local voices and common concerns could provide the foundation for popular change.

Pakistan may be the first of several complex crises. Nigeria, Iran, and perhaps Mexico will require the United States to think creatively about huge internal problems. Smart power will permit all voices to be heard and promote the rejection of violence and intimidation. It should be our next step in Pakistan.

Rick Barton is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, and was a member of their Smart Power Commission, a bipartisan effort to submit recommendations for developing an integrated policy to strengthen US influence, image, and effectiveness.

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