By Sanjeev Bery and Manan Ahmed

San Jose Mercury News  /  Posted: 02/17/2009

Depending on whether you like watching your news or reading it, there were two very different reports on Pakistan this Sunday.

On CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Pakistani President Asif Zardari proclaimed that his nation is in a fight for its survival, with the Taliban “trying to take over the state of Pakistan.” Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported that Zardari’s government reached a 10-day cease fire with a Taliban-affiliated militia in the northern Swat Valley. The militia agreed to stop fighting, and in return, the government agreed to implement Islamic Sharia law in the area.

How does one reconcile the two accounts?

First, let’s dispense with the hyperbole. Pakistan is not on the verge of being taken over by Taliban militias.

Pakistan’s 2008 elections demonstrate the bias of Pakistani voters for moderate leaders and mainstream Islam. Voters rejected fundamentalist Muslim parties and gave most of their votes to the moderates they knew best. In light of this, it is fairly clear that the idea of the Taliban somehow controlling Pakistan’s 172 million people is absurd.

Still, Taliban-affiliated militias have done a great deal of damage. In addition to terrorist attacks, one Taliban-allied militia took over Pakistan’s northern Swat region. Given that Pakistan is a nuclear-armed nation with a massive military, it begs the question: How can such a large country find itself unable or unwilling to control the actions of a small, extremist faction?

Many Pakistani civilians are perplexed by these realities. It seems evident that there is an underlying power struggle between Pakistan’s civilian leadership and some factions of its military and intelligence institutions. In talking tough, perhaps President Zardari is attempting to reassert his own perceived authority.

This is yet the latest chapter in a long struggle between civilian and military leaders that has undermined Pakistan as a nation. It is a struggle for which the United States must take some of the blame. While the United States may not be responsible for the rise of Pakistan’s past military dictators, it certainly prolonged their time in power. As a result, Pakistan’s civilian institutions have suffered.

During each of Pakistan’s major periods of military dictatorship, U.S. leaders lent support. In the 1960s, the United States backed Gen. Ayub Khan in our own Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. When Gen. Zia-ul-Haq ran Pakistan in the 1980s, the United States used Pakistan to funnel military aid to the fundamentalist mujahedeen who were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. And finally, there was Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who received massive U.S. military aid in return for fighting the Taliban — an offshoot of the mujahedeen we once supported.

In all of this, Pakistani society has been the loser. Massive amounts of U.S. military aid have expanded the power of Pakistan’s military at the expense of civilian institutions. For example, the Pakistani economy is currently reeling under 12-hour power blackouts. President Zardari may suffer for this, but it was U.S.-backed dictator Musharraf who deserves the blame for not paying attention to Pakistan’s basic infrastructure needs.

From power blackouts to loss of control in the Swat Valley, average Pakistanis are paying a heavy price for decades of on-and-off U.S.-backed military dictatorship. And the U.S. policy of drone missile attacks will not provide answers. Instead, we should help Pakistanis strengthen their civilian institutions, address the humanitarian crisis in Swat and cease our military-first approach.

Sanjeev Bery, former head of San Jose’s office of the ACLU, recently spent six months in New Delhi, India.. Manan Ahmed, Ph.D., is a historian of Pakistan based in Chicago who recently returned from Lahore, Pakistan, and is a member of Action for a Progressive Pakistan. They wrote this article for the Mercury News.