Pakistan was thus thoroughly undermined from within even before it made the unwise decision to shelter escaping Afghan Taliban in 2001 -- the army's bid to maintain its options in the face of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Using Islamic extremists as a tool of foreign policy was shown as a bankrupt policy after 9/11, but Pakistan continued to pursue it both in Afghanistan and Kashmir, blindly refusing to see that the world had fundamentally changed.
Pakistan is now paying the full price. Some 35,000 Pakistani citizens have been killed by the Pakistani Taliban, by related militant groups, or in bitter sectarian warfare that has gone unchecked. Extremists have targeted Hindus and Christians but also Muslim groups like the Ahmedis, Ismailis, Memons, and Shia. In Quetta, the capital of strife-torn Baluchistan, ethnic insurgents are blowing up buses; in Karachi, the breakdown of law and order is fueling the growth of armed militias in the slums based on ethnic, criminal, or political loyalty.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration's misguided handling of Pakistan over the past year has only convinced Pakistani hardliners that they were right. In their eyes, Washington's provocative cozying up to New Delhi, the peace talks it started with the Taliban without including Pakistan, and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan it planned without adequate consultations with Islamabad have all served notice that America's hostility toward Pakistan is unrelenting. They believe it's the Americans who have got it all wrong and now face a military debacle in Afghanistan. The irony is that Pakistan has always wanted a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and a U.S.-Taliban dialogue it could dominate. Now that all it wished for is actually coming true, Pakistan is sitting on the wrong side of the fence, estranged from the United States as neighbors like Iran maneuver to take advantage of the U.S. withdrawal and Pakistan's absence from the scene.
Of course, the United States has its own hardliners. The most dangerous step some in the U.S. Congress and the administration are now advising President Obama to take is declaring the Afghan Taliban network led by Jalaluddin Haqqani a terrorist group. That could lead to Pakistan being declared a state sponsor of terrorism because of Haqqani's safe havens there. Such a designation would turn many more Pakistanis into anti-American extremists. By taking such a step and refusing to apologize for the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by U.S. helicopters last November, the United States would only be setting the scene for further meltdown in Pakistan. Ending the Haqqani presence in Pakistan requires political dialogue from Washington and Kabul, not threats.
The rock-bottom relations with the United States distract Pakistan from its real problem: its spiraling domestic crises. Pakistan desperately needs leaders who can bring a new narrative to the debate, who can effectively criticize the military for plunging us into this ideological backwater for the past 30 years. Pakistan needs inspirational figures who can expose the corruption and ineptness of the politicians and demand economic and fiscal reform so that we can rebuild our country.
Any new narrative requires us as Pakistanis to take ownership of our problems rather than blaming the usual suspects: the United States, India, and Israel. So far, at least, there are no such leaders on the horizon. The best hope for Pakistan may be the promising growth of a young people's movement led by poets, pop musicians, human rights groups, artists, bankers, and bureaucrats who communicate on social networks and talk constantly about the need for change.
Sixty percent of Pakistan's 180 million people are below the age of 25, so these young people have the majority on their side. The creaking political establishment has little knowledge of this class of people or their aspirations for a better future. It is these young people who need to develop a fresh narrative about Pakistan's history and where it is going -- a narrative that does not put the army and nuclear weapons at center stage but puts Pakistani citizens first, once and for all.