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Congress should advance the notable success in Pakistan

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Congress should advance the notable success in Pakistan
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From China to Russia and Afghanistan to Iran, it's a time of woe for U.S. foreign policy. But there's an exception -- Pakistan -- and Congress can keep the progress going.

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Specifically, Congress needs finally to pass legislation, sponsored in the Senate by John Kerry, D-Mass., and Dick Lugar, R-Ind., authorizing $1.5 billion a year in long-term economic and security assistance.

More controversially, Congress and the Obama administration need to make it clear that the United States will do what it takes to prevent the Taliban from retaking neighboring Afghanistan.

Final passage of Kerry-Lugar -- sponsored in the House by Reps. Howard Berman, D-Calif., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill. -- will authorize a tripling of U.S. assistance to Pakistan and make a statement that the United States is dedicated for the long haul to Pakistan's social and economic progress.

More U.S. and Afghan forces plus a new protect-the-population strategy are necessary in Afghanistan to prevent it from becoming a sanctuary for terrorist operations against Pakistan now that military progress is being made there.

The U.S. public and Democratic leaders in Congress don't want to step up the fight in Afghanistan, but they must realize that the future of populous, nuclear-armed Pakistan is at stake, too.

As late as five months ago, Pakistan appeared to be plunging into chaos -- menaced by terrorists, mired in political turmoil and economically in crisis.

But, thanks to unexpected political leadership from Pakistan's democratic government, a big Taliban scare and support from the international community, especially the United States, a lot has turned around.

Dozens of extremist leaders have been killed in U.S. missile strikes, including the Pakistani Taliban's top leader, Baitullah Mehsud, the man responsible for the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

The success of Predator-borne missile strikes bespeaks a high level of military, intelligence and political cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan -- and success in penetrating hostile areas along the Afghan border to identify targets.

Pakistanis got a huge scare earlier this year when the Taliban took over the scenic Swat valley north of the capital, Islamabad.

Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower, has made it a cornerstone of his year-old regime that the war against terrorism was not America's war but "our war," but the Pakistani population didn't seem convinced until Swat was taken over.

In what seemed a capitulation this spring, Zardari allowed his supporters in Parliament to bless a cease-fire with the Taliban in Swat.

In fact, government supporters say, Zardari knew that the Taliban would seize control by force, begin committing atrocities and alienate the population. Exactly that happened.

In May, 500,000 civilians were evacuated from Swat, the army moved in and the Taliban were largely crushed.

In an interview, Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, told me that there's been a sea change in military-civilian relations in Pakistan.

"The military is actually doing what the civilians are deciding. The civilians have decided to fight and the military is fully behind it," he said.

Zardari also has quieted political crises involving independent lawyers over the judiciary and his rival, Nawaz Sharif, that earlier threatened the anti-terror struggle.

Moreover, a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, aid from a U.S.-led consortium and controls on government spending have reduced inflation and helped Pakistan weather the global economic crisis.

Despite all that, however, Zardari's approval ratings are low -- 33 percent -- and so are those of the United States, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey.

The poll suggests that Pakistani opinion is on a knife's edge. Sixty-four percent of the population regards the U.S. as an "enemy" and only 9 percent as a "partner."

Only 13 percent have confidence in President Barack Obama, and 16 percent have a favorable view of the United States.

Yet, by 54 percent to 29 percent, Pakistanis say it's important that relations with the U.S. improve, and 69 percent worry that Islamic extremists could take control of their country.

Whatever support the Taliban had -- 27 percent in 2008 -- has dropped to near nothing, and big majorities favor U.S. economic and intelligence assistance. Almost half even approve of U.S. missile strikes.

"The good news," Haqqani said, "is that the government has been able to turn the people against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The bad news is that we haven't turned it pro-American.

"So, if you want to do this, the way to do it is to push (Kerry-Lugar) quickly so we can sell the argument that our people will benefit from relations with the United States."

Another appeal for swift passage was made this week by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen.

Versions of Kerry-Lugar have passed both the House and Senate. Passing a final bill next week -- which Zardari could bring home from the United Nations -- would help secure successes against extremism.

Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.

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Pioneer staff reports
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