As President Barack Obama urged Muslims to reject violent extremism in Cairo last week, a decisive shift in attitudes was already under way in Pakistan. Over the past month, the Pakistani military has waged an intensive fight against the Taliban and extremist elements in its North-West Frontier Province.
This shift could be a major turning point in Pakistan's history and is a critical moment for Congress to support the Pakistani people by passing the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act. This bill will help empower Pakistanis fighting to turn their country toward a path of moderation and stability, which is why Obama has urged Congress to pass it.
For years, the United States has been advocating, with little success, that Pakistan take on the violent extremists enjoying sanctuary within its borders. Many top military and civilian officials have treated this as an American or Western war rather than as Pakistan's fight to remain a moderate, Muslim nation. The Pakistani people have been similarly skeptical, consistently favoring flawed "peace deals" with the Taliban over any use of military force.
During my trip to Pakistan in April, I again saw the stark divergence of attitudes. While most Pakistanis opposed the Taliban's brutality, especially suicide bombings against Pakistani targets, they justified such crimes as the result of U.S. interference, aimed at driving the U.S. out of the region.
In the past few weeks, though, public opinion in Pakistan has shifted significantly, with majorities now supporting military action against the Taliban. What explains this drastic change? For one thing, the Taliban showed their true colors. Since the February "peace deal" that ceded control of the Swat Valley to the insurgents, the Taliban have committed acts of murder and torture, imposed radical social restrictions, prevented girls from going to school, enriched themselves through illegal taxes and extortion, and moved to neighboring areas such as Buner and Dir. For many, the last straw was a gruesome Internet video of Taliban cadres mercilessly flogging a 17-year-old girl.
We are watching history unfold in Pakistan, as ordinary villagers take up arms against the Taliban. We have a chance to help reinforce change by offering a vision of an alternate future. This is at the heart of the Kerry-Lugar bill.
The bill invests $1.5 billion a year for five to 10 years in projects that directly benefit the people of Pakistan. The money will promote police reform and training, an effective judiciary and the rule of law. It will boost economic growth and employment opportunities for youth who might otherwise join the insurgency. It will help the Pakistani government invest in its own people, particularly women and children, by supporting public education, food security and quality public health care. Without conditioning nonmilitary aid, the bill will require performance benchmarks to show the American people that their money is being well-spent.
For decades, the United States has tried to influence Pakistan by providing billions of dollars in unaccountable military aid and compensation, while neglecting the needs of the population itself. That is why we must de-link military from nonmilitary aid so that our assistance actually goes to the people rather than to the army. Our security aid should be carefully calibrated, year by year, depending on the needs and the cooperation of the Pakistani military.
Today, most Pakistanis believe the United States will cut and run when it serves our purpose. Our approach transforms this dysfunctional and suspicious relationship into a longer-term strategic engagement with the Pakistani people based on mutual trust and cooperation. Only then will Pakistan see the United States as an ally with shared interests and goals, such as defeating militant extremists that threaten the national security of both countries.
The opportunity to help turn the tide in Pakistan will not last long. Already, sweltering heat is aggravating the suffering of more than 3 million Pakistanis displaced by the military operations. I have called on the U.S. to demonstrate strong leadership in responding to this humanitarian catastrophe. Without a robust American commitment, public support for the fight against the Taliban will quickly crumble as Pakistanis decide the price is just too high.
The Pakistani people have shown they are willing to take on violent extremists. We must now honor the president's pledge in Cairo and stand with them in their moment of need.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.