With the fall of Swat to the Taliban, the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team and the killing of the policemen, Pakistan has plunged into a major crisis of confidence. On March 16th, the Muslim League and Jamaat-i-Islami will lead a protest march to Islamabad. If there is bloodshed, Pakistani generals may be forced to think of intervening again.
Pakistan would be back to square one and its democratic dreams once again dashed.
President Barack Obama would then be faced with a difficult choice: to support a military dictatorship or challenge it and push shaky Pakistan further into crisis.
It is critical for Americans to therefore understand why they need to ensure Pakistan's viability and integrity before the country goes over the brink: Pakistan is a much larger nation than either Iraq or Afghanistan with a total population of over 170 million people; Pakistan is nuclear; it has an established army with a coherent command and control structure; and above all it has a long border with Afghanistan which at the moment allows Taliban to move freely across either side to play havoc with its enemies.
Americans must understand the significance of the fall of Swat, and why Pakistan must take it back by reestablishing the authority of its judicial and civil service structures. If this does not happen soon the Taliban will surely move to the fertile valleys of Mardan to the south of Swat and Peshawar will fall like a ripe fruit. America's land route to Afghanistan through Peshawar will be closed and Afghanistan will be imperiled. If Pakistan is lost today Afghanistan goes tomorrow.
While Obama has given Afghanistan as his top priority and we hear so much of the "surge" which will bring an additional 30,000 US troops to that country, Pakistan seems to be treated almost like a neglected stepchild. Yet, the paradox is that the war in Afghanistan can only be won if Pakistan remains stable and secure.
Losing Pakistan, therefore, is not an option.
That is why Washington needs to develop an effective and long-term strategy for Pakistan. For a start it must stop the senseless drone strikes in Pakistan, which may kill a few targeted people but end up creating widespread ill-will toward Americans.
Washington should use its generous aid to Pakistan more wisely and to create confidence among Pakistanis ask former President Pervez Musharraf to account for the 15 billion dollars the Americans gave him since 9/11.
Thinking long-term, Washington must do everything possible to help Pakistan avoid another martial law. If the military were to take over, the democracy promised at the time of the country's creation in 1947 by M. A. Jinnah, known in Pakistan as the Quaid-i-Azam, would not materialize.
Jinnah, the quintessential founding father, embodied the modern Muslim democrat. He championed the causes of women, minorities, and the constitution, and acted as a beacon to an entire generation of Pakistanis. Jinnah showed that it was possible to balance modernity with the traditions of Islam.
That vision made sense. After all, the vast majority of the country was -- and is -- Muslim. There were, however, some who would have wanted a much more literal interpretation of Islam. These, in time, would grow in strength and one of their strains would take the form of the Taliban. Although many literalists have a reasoned and balanced approach to governance, the Taliban have little patience with girls schools, music shops, and other expressions of what it sees as dangerous modernity.
In the early days of Pakistan it appeared as if the modernists like Jinnah had won the day. Today with the shariah imposed on Swat it appears as if the pendulum is swinging toward the literalists.
However, moaning about the shariah in the West does not find a resonance in Pakistani ears, except among the Western elite in the cities. For most of the people in Swat, the shariah means law and order and justice. That is why the government of Pakistan has to reclaim its capacity to provide these for the people of Swat. Pakistan's leaders must understand what is at stake.
Obama needs to sit down with Zardari and work out a strategy to help Pakistan move and flourish on the democratic path. This he can do by reminding Zardari of Jinnah, who is still widely respected in Pakistan. The democratic process should encourage more Jinnahs, which in turn will automatically neutralize those Pakistanis who terrorize their fellow countrymen by using -- or misusing -- religion.
But Obama must ensure that more than lip service is paid to the concept of Jinnah's democratic Pakistan. Jinnah actively fought against nepotism and corruption, which flourish in Zardari's Pakistan. Obama must encourage Zardari to ensure that law and order is not compromised at any cost.
This can be done by the re-institution of the judiciary and the civil administration, which Musharraf almost destroyed.
Zardari also needs to vigorously follow the principles set by Jinnah and work toward establishing a healthy democratic opposition. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for example, who represents the Muslim League, the second largest party in Pakistan, needs to be treated as an honorable opposition leader and not as a target for the government.
All this may seem too much for Obama, beset by economic woes at home, but he has staked his reputation on winning Afghanistan. He cannot do so without saving Pakistan.