The day since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto has been a period of pundits gone wild, with everyone mostly leaning back on their hoary old ideas as if they’re holy writ. Or saying “I told you so.” Or blaming Bush. I guess I’m closer to the “I told you so” crowd, since I did in fact tell you so, though my misgivings during the emergency rule phase a few weeks ago weren’t all that well defined. I didn’t prophesy the killing of Bhutto. I just had a Star Wars character’s bad feeling about this. And I still do.

The problem of Pakistan is the problem with Iran, but seen from different ends. Pakistan has the bomb and lots of radicals, but the radicals aren’t in power and therefore don’t have the bomb. Iran has the radicals and they’re in power, but because Iran doesn’t have the bomb (yet), the radicals don’t have the bomb. Pakistan has the bomb thanks in part to an inattentive Clinton administration that believed Benazir Bhutto’s lies about her country’s peaceful nuclear program. Given that nugget, I’ll take saber rattling at Iran over credulous inattention in Pakistan, the latter of which would go on to proliferate nuclear technology via the AQ Khan network.

Approaching Pakistan from a position of humility is definitely in order at this point. It’s nearly impossible to predict which way the country will go from here, but most of its choices don’t look good. Andrew McCarthy sees and very hostile populace in Pakistan and concludes that our war is with them and not the leadership, and he’s right as far as it goes: We’re not popular in Pakistan, and our enemy Osama bin Laden is. Sunny optimist Max Boot says we’re not popular because we support Musharraf, and that’s partly true I suppose, but surely the fact that a majority thinks highly of bin Laden says something too? Osama isn’t a liberal democrat in any sense, yet he’s popular, and we’ve allied ourselves with Musharraf, also not much of a democrat though arguably tolerably liberal, and he’s not popular. Could it be that he’s not popular precisely because Pakistan does have a seething population that wants unshirted sharia and wants to wage unfettered jihad? Could it be that what people believe actually matters to how they behave and what they want from life?

Both McCarthy and Boot are in a sense right, they’re just looking at things from different points of view. The Pakistani street isn’t our friend right now. But, ultimately, freedom may be the thing that makes them our friend. But how do we get from here to there without unleashing a democratic nuclear-armed Pakistan with a government that looks an awful lot like the one in Tehran in the interim?

As I said earlier, humility is in order, but I have an idea. Pakistan has a serious, secular middle class but it also has a larger underclass that’s become increasingly radical over the course of the past few decades. Pakistan has a largely secular military that’s generally pro-Western, mostly because its military has instituted Western norms of instruction and service. It’s also rife with radicals, which says more about Pakistan’s indigenous population from which the military must draw its personnel than about the military as an institution.

Pakistan’s education system, or lack thereof, has played a central role in the country’s radicalization. Pakistan’s education system is awful. It’s a patchwork of private madrassas, some of which teach real education but many if not most of which teach only the Koran. There are no national standards at all, and parents either send their children to private madrassas or their children don’t get educated. Those madrassas teach mostly a radical point of view. They’re all funded either by outside, mostly Saudi Wahhabi, sources or indigenously via Islamic sharia-approved means. Pakistan needs to uproot this system root and branch, now, and replace it with something that the Ron Paulians won’t like at all. Pakistan needs a secular, national education system operated imam-free by its more secular middle class that teaches more than just the Koran and the life of Muhammad. Pakistan also needs to cut off the Saudi funding and should institute a national, secular system to fund the whole thing. A tax, in other words. We shouldn’t be seen to fund it, but we can advise it and monitor it from afar to make sure that it stays secular and delivers a real education. We can bring its teachers here if need be for professional development and the like. I’m not crazy about that, as the NEA is likely to get involved, but I’d rather have the NEA than the Wahhabis advising Pakistani teachers. Consider it the lesser of two evils. I realize that none of this sounds very Goldwaterish, and I’m no fan of how our own government uses national standards to impose its will on local schools, but Pakistan isn’t Pennsylvania and it has a widespread radical militant problem that doesn’t exist here. That problem is what we need to fight.

I’m not so much advocating a big government solution to the problem as advocating a secular, government solution to the problem that has been fostered by a lack of a coherent government approach to Pakistan’s education system. I’m not saying that it’s a panacea that will fix the situation entirely. I do think it will help. And I’m not advocating a microwave solution that can fix Pakistan by next week. That can’t be done, and contra Boot and the Bush administration, simply foisting a questionable former prime minister on a wary, radicalizing populace in a way that made her look like a puppet of the US obviously wasn’t the answer. She’s dead now, there doesn’t seem to be a Plan B, and Musharraf’s regime may be cracking. We may not be able to save him, but we had better be ready to work with him or whoever replaces him to change Pakistan over time. There may not be a thing we can do about the current, radicalized generation that’s of age in Pakistan right now, but we may be able to do something about Pakistan’s next generation. A couple or three decades of secular education should go a long way toward de-radicalizing them. It’s not as sexy as strafing attacks, but it’s likely to do more good. Once a secularly educated generation comes of age in post-madrassa Pakistan, then we can democratize. In the interim, democratize in stages via local elections to secular, non-education related offices, city management and things of that nature to get them used to the responsibilities of self-rule. We’re trying that approach in Iraq right now via neighborhood advisory councils, and it’s mostly working. Thankfully Pakistan doesn’t have the shadow of a Saddam in its past to create psychological trauma to overcome.

It’s going to take a while to de-radicalize Pakistan, but beating the radicals through books beats attempting a more martial solution. The latter is quicker, but I think the former stands a better chance of creating a Pakistan that the world can live with.

(front page photo)

Update: Stanley Kurtz lays out the grim realities we face in Pakistan.

Right now we face the very real prospect of an electoral coalition in which Sharif and allied Islamists hold significant power. Yes, Sharif would still run a double game against terrorism to mollify the Americans, but it would be vastly more tenuous than even Musharraf’s game is now, and would constantly threaten to collapse into anti-American demagoguery (now a key source of Sharif’s popular appeal). Even an electoral victory by a Bhutto successor could mean trouble. Bhutto’s supporters do not favor the war on terror, and could in any case fall into conflicts with the army that would lead to further chaos. And remember, Bhutto and Sharif alternated in power, and their respective parties and coalitions would surely alternate again. Disenchantment with a regime ruled by a Bhutto successor would lead to victory in the next election for an even more virulently anti-American Sharif-Islamist coalition. This is the future of “democracy” in Pakistan.

Read the whole thing. I’d be fine with a Pakistan that’s not terribly friendly to the US as long as its major export isn’t jihadists or nuclear technology. But its major export is in fact jihadists and until a few years ago nuclear technology was among its exports as well. The jihadist component is going to be there whether Musharraf or Sharif or a Bhutto successor or some as yet unknown Islamist is in power, because the madrassas are radicalizing millions of Pakistanis every year. We need to find a way to turn that around, if possible.