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Commentary: Pakistan isn't falling

  • Story Highlights
  • Peter Bergen: Some have said Taliban advance threatens secular state of Pakistan
  • Bergen says Pakistan has many serious problems, including feeble economy
  • He says Pakistan isn't about to fall to the Taliban and has survived worse crises
  • Bergen: Pakistani support for pro-Taliban parties and suicide bombings has fallen
By Peter Bergen
CNN National Security Analyst
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Editor's note: Peter Bergen is a fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank that promotes innovative thought from across the ideological spectrum, and at New York University's Center on Law and Security. He's the author of "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader."

Peter Bergen says with all of its problems, Pakistan isn't in danger of being taken over by religious militants.

Peter Bergen says with all of its problems, Pakistan isn't in danger of being taken over by religious militants.

(CNN) -- In the past few weeks as the Pakistani Taliban have marched ever closer to the capital, Islamabad, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has sounded the alarm about the threat posed by the militants, who she said in congressional testimony pose "a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world."

Some media commentators have even warned that the populous, nuclear-armed state might fall into the hands of the religious zealots.

This is hyperventilation. Pakistan has myriad problems -- its economy is tanking; its political leadership is feckless; its military is not trained or equipped to fight a domestic insurgency; and the Taliban now can control the lives of millions of Pakistanis. But none of this means that Pakistan is in danger of becoming a failed state or that the religious militants are about to take over the country.

The present crisis with the Taliban is not nearly as severe as the genuinely existential crises that Pakistan has faced and weathered in the past. Pakistan has fought three major wars with India and has lost each encounter, including the 1971 war in which one half of the country seceded to become Bangladesh.

Pakistan's key leaders have succumbed to the assassin's bullet or bomb or the hangman's noose, and the country has seen four military coups since its birth in 1947. Yet the Pakistani polity has limped on.

And lost in the disturbing pictures of well-armed Taliban foot soldiers advancing on Islamabad are three promising tectonic shifts in the Pakistan body politic.

First is the "lawyers' movement" that was largely responsible for the ouster of the military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf last year and the restoration of an independent judiciary.

Second is an explosion in independent media. Where in the 1990s there was one government-controlled television station, there are now dozens of channels. The new media is largely pro-democratic and secular in its orientation.

Third is that ordinary Pakistanis are fed up with the militants. The alliance of pro-Taliban religious parties known as the MMA secured enough of the vote in 2002 to win control of two of the four provinces that make up Pakistan. But in 2008 voters threw the MMA out of office, and it secured a miserable 2 percent of the vote.

Similarly, support for suicide bombing among Pakistanis had dropped from 33 percent in 2002 to 5 percent in 2008, according to the Pew Global Attitudes survey, and favorable views of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban have steadily eroded.

Pakistan also lacks a unifying religious figure of the stature of Ayatollah Khomeini, who united disparate Iranian forces to overthrow the Shah of Iran three decades ago. The Shah, after all, was a dictator and not the leader of an elected government.

But, conversely, Pakistan also lacks a leader to unite the country and the army in a common goal of defeating the religious militants. Benazir Bhutto, the country's most popular politician when she was killed by the Taliban in December 2007, might have been able to do it. But her husband, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, doesn't have her stature.

A new Pakistan leader will have to emerge who has the courage to say something like the following: "I have a plan. It is a Pakistani plan and not an American plan. Our main enemy is no longer India; if we go to war again, we may well destroy each other with our nuclear weapons. Our new enemy is the militants claiming to act for Islam in our midst. They do not represent the Pakistan that our great founder, Ali Jinnah, envisioned; a country for Muslims living in peace, not an ideologically Islamist state. We will make no peace deals with the Taliban again. Every time we have done such a deal the Taliban have used it as a prelude to steal more of our land and impose their brutal rule on more of our citizens. We will task and train our military for an effective campaign against the militants, and we will wipe them off our lands."

The United States can do little to help the process of such a politician emerging except to support Pakistan's fragile democracy and not be tempted by the mirage of another military strongman promising stability, but delivering instead a weakened Pakistani civilian state.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter Bergen.

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