Kristof: Best weapon against Pakistani militants is education

KARACHI, Pakistan — It was the home of a Muslim religious teacher, but he was stockpiling more than copies of the Koran. His house blew up this month in a thunderous explosion that leveled much of his village and could be heard six miles away. Police reported that he was storing explosives, rockets, grenades and suicide vests.

But perhaps what was most dispiriting was that this arsenal, apparently intended for terrorist attacks, was not in the tribal areas in the northwest of Pakistan where the Taliban and al-Qaida have long conducted operations. Rather this was in the southern part of Punjab, the Pakistani heartland.

The explosion was a reminder of what some call the "creeping Talibanization," even of parts of Pakistan far from the formal fighting. Militants seem to be putting the entire country in play, and that's one reason Pakistan should be President Barack Obama's top foreign policy challenge.

It would be unthinkably catastrophic if Pakistan — with perhaps 80 to 100 nuclear weapons — were to fall into chaos.

Even in Karachi, the pragmatic commercial hub of the country, extremists have taken over some neighborhoods. A Pakistani police document marked "top secret," given to me by a Pakistani concerned by the spreading tentacles of jihadis, states that Taliban agents sometimes set up armed checkpoints in one neighborhood.

These militants "generate funds through criminal activities like kidnapping for ransom, bank robbery, street robbery and other heinous crimes," the report says.

But the militants may have overreached. Their brutality, including the flogging of a teenage girl before a large crowd, has shocked and alienated many Pakistanis. It is just possible that the tide is turning as a result.

A poll of Pakistanis released by this month found that one-third believed that the Taliban intended to gain control of all of Pakistan, but 75 percent thought that would be a bad result. Two years ago, only 34 percent of Pakistanis believed that Islamic militants constituted a "critical threat." Now, 81 percent do.

Unfortunately, the United States has acted in ways that have often empowered the militants. We have lavished more than $11 billion on Pakistan since Sept. 11, mostly supporting the Pakistani army. Yet that sum has bought Pakistan no security and us no good will.

In that same poll, 59 percent of Pakistanis said that they share many of al-Qaida's attitudes toward the United States, and almost half of those said that they support al-Qaida attacks on Americans.

One reason is that America hasn't stood up for its own values in Pakistan. We cold-shouldered the lawyers' movement, which was the best hope for democracy and civil society.

If we want to stabilize Pakistan, we should take two steps.

First is to cut tariffs on manufactured imports from Pakistan. That would boost the country's economy, raise employment and create good will.

Second, we should redirect our aid from subsidies to the Pakistani military to support for a major education initiative. A bill in the Senate backed by Democrat John Kerry and Republican Richard Lugar would support Pakistani schools, among other nonmilitary projects, and would be an excellent step forward.

In rural Pakistan, you regularly see madrassas established by Islamic fundamentalists, typically offering free tuition, free meals and even scholarships to study abroad for the best students.

It's clear that the militant fundamentalists believe in the power of education — and they have invested in schools. Why can't we show the same faith in education?