Opinion writer May 11, 2011

The killing of Osama bin Laden has produced new waves of commentary on the problem of Pakistan. We could all discuss again its selective policy toward terrorists, its complicated relationship with the United States and its mounting dysfunctions. But there is more to this opportunity than an opening for analysis. This is a time for action, to finally push the country toward moderation and genuine democracy.

So far, Pakistan’s military has approached this crisis as it has every one in the past, using its old tricks and hoping to ride out the storm. It is leaking stories to favored journalists, unleashing activists and politicians, all with the aim of stoking anti-Americanism. Having been caught in a situation that suggests either complicity with al-Qaeda or gross incompetence — and the reality is probably a bit of both — it is furiously trying to change the subject. Senior generals angrily denounce America for entering the country. “It’s like a person, caught in bed with another man’s wife, who is indignant that someone entered his house,” one Pakistani scholar, who preferred not to be named for fear of repercussions, told me.

Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Post. He is also the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. View Archive

This strategy has worked in the past. In 2009, the Obama administration joined forces with Sens. Richard Lugar and John Kerry to triple American aid to Pakistan’s civilian government and civil society — to $7.5 billion over five years — but with measures designed to strengthen democracy and civilian control over the military. The military reacted by unleashing an anti-American campaign, using its proxies in the media and parliament to denounce “violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty” — the same phrase that’s being hurled about now. The result was that the United States backed off and has conceded that, in practice, none of the strictures in the Lugar-Kerry bill will be implemented.

The military has also, once again, been able to cow the civilian government. According to Pakistani sources, the speech that Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani gave at a recent news conference was drafted by the military. President Asif Ali Zardari continues to appease the military rather than confront the generals. Having come to power hoping to clip the military’s wings, Pakistan’s democratically elected government has been reduced to mouthing talking points written for it by the intelligence services.

There have been almost no marches to protest bin Laden’s death or the American operation, although one 500-person march in Lahore was replayed endlessly on television. The fundamental issue for Pakistan is surely not how America entered the country. The United States has been involved in counterterrorism operations in Pakistan for years, using drones and people. Rather, the fundamental question is, how was it that the world’s leading terrorist was living in Pakistan, with some kind of support network that must have included elements of the Pakistani government? How is it that every major al-Qaeda official who has been captured since 2002 has been comfortably ensconced in a Pakistani city? And how is it that any time these issues are raised, they get drowned out by an organized campaign of anti-Americanism or religious fanaticism?

Washington has given in to the Pakistani military time and again, on the theory that we need the generals badly and that they could go elsewhere for support — to the Chinese, for instance. In fact, the United States has considerable leverage with Islamabad. The Pakistanis need American aid, arms and training to sustain their army. If they are going to receive those benefits, they must become part of Pakistan’s solution and not its problem. With some urgency, Washington should:

l Demand a major national commission in Pakistan — headed by a Supreme Court justice, not an army apparatchik — to investigate whether bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders have been supported and sustained by elements of the Pakistani state.

l Demand that the provisions of the Lugar-Kerry bill on civilian control of the military be strictly followed or aid will be withheld.

l Develop a plan to go after the major untouched terror networks in Pakistan, such as the Haqqani faction, the Quetta Shura and Lashkar-i-Taiba.

In the longer run, as the United States scales back its military presence in Afghanistan, it will need the Pakistani military less and less to supply its troops in theater.

Pakistan’s civilian government, business class and intellectuals have an ever-larger role in this struggle. They should not get distracted by empty anti-American slogans or hypernationalism. This is Pakistan’s moment of truth, its chance to break with its dysfunctions and become a normal, modern country. The opportunity might not come again.

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