Finally, some good news from Pakistan. The United States has a dramatic opportunity to help roll back gains made by Taliban militants. Simultaneously, they can reverse widespread Pakistani public hostility toward the United States.
U.S. officials will have to act quickly, and smartly. Miss this chance, and prospects will improve for the militants to destabilize the nuclear-armed Pakistani state.
The opportunity to which I refer grows out of a human tragedy. Pakistan’s military is mounting a major offensive to drive Taliban militants out of the Swat Valley and other areas within 60 miles of the capital, Islamabad. This comes after the failure of an ill-considered effort by Pakistani politicians to negotiate a peace with the militants.
But the military campaign has created huge refugee flows; an estimated 1.7 million Pakistanis have fled the fighting. If these refugees don’t return home soon, they will provide a fertile new recruiting ground for the Taliban.
Many Pakistanis still remember the massive aid ferried in by the United States in Chinook helicopters after the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. “It made the difference in saving so many from dying,” says Pakistani security analyst Ikram Sehgal. “The United States should do the same now, and the aid must be visible.”
The big question is this: How can the United States best help the refugees and communicate the message that Americans are their friends?
Until this army offensive, many Pakistanis saw the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban as a battle foisted on them by the Americans. The blatant violation of the recent peace deal has sharply shifted Pakistani public opinion against the militants. But public opinion is still volatile. Swatis mistrust their own government and are still waiting for the Pakistani army to take out top Taliban leaders. They wonder if their government will help them return home.
So there is an immense opportunity for the United States to help the refugees. Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pledged $110 million to help with the crisis (on top of $60 million in humanitarian aid sent since August). The money will go via the United Nations and international agencies.
This thinking isn’t big enough. Tens of thousands of refugees from previous army efforts last August are still languishing in fetid camps. More humanitarian aid doesn’t guarantee that new refugees can go home.
So why not think back to Chinook diplomacy? Why not offer a major U.S. resettlement plan for refugees in camps and those now being hosted, with great difficulty, by families and local villagers? Why not offer to rebuild infrastructure damaged by army shelling?
Why not help private Pakistani charities and individuals who are aiding refugees, like the Tarikai family of Swabi district, which is funding and feeding thousands, in tent villages they’ve built with their own funds?
And why not – at a time when Pakistanis are angry at the Taliban – do a better job of publicizing U.S. assistance?
Imtiaz Ali, a noted Pakistani journalist from Peshawar, currently a fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace in Washington, points out there are a huge number of pro-Taliban FM radio stations spewing propaganda in the affected tribal areas. He suggests using FM stations to communicate the other side of the story.
Ali says setting up an FM channel costs only $300 to $400, and existing local stations can be used to send out an anti-Taliban message. “We need to reach out to the people and say the Taliban is a common threat to all Pakistanis,” he says, “and to tell them the U.S. is bringing in aid.”
Local Pashtun journalists could report the surge in U.S. aid delivery and could keep refugees updated on progress toward their return. Such information would boost their morale. The United States could fund delivery of transistor radios to the refugees.
Makes good sense to me. We are spending billions to combat al-Qaida and the Taliban. Funding transistor radios and village reconstruction serves the same purpose – at a fraction of the price.