Barack Obama's most difficult international test in the next year will very likely be in Pakistan. A country with 170 million people and up to 60 nuclear weapons may be collapsing. Reporting in Pakistan is scarier than it has ever been. Peshawar is now controlled in part by the Taliban, and this month alone in the area, an American aid worker was shot dead, an Iranian diplomat kidnapped, a Japanese journalist shot and American humvees stolen from a Nato convoy to Afghanistan.

I've been coming to Pakistan for 26 years, ever since I hid on the tops of buses to sneak into tribal areas as a backpacking university student, and I've never found Pakistanis so gloomy. Some worry that militants, nurtured by illiteracy and a failed education system, will overrun the country or that the nation will break apart. I'm not quite that pessimistic, but it's very likely that the next major terror attack in the West is being planned by extremists here.

The US has squandered more than $10 billion on Pakistan since 9/11, and Pakistani intelligence agencies seem to have rerouted some of that to Taliban extremists. American forces periodically strike militants in tribal areas, but people from those areas overwhelmingly tell me that these strikes just antagonize tribal leaders and make them back the Taliban more.

President Asif Ali Zardari seems overwhelmed by the challenges and locked in the past. Incredibly, he has just chosen for his cabinet two men who would fit fine in a Taliban government. One of them, Israr Ullah Zehri, defended the torture-murder of five women and girls who were buried alive (the girls wanted to choose their own husbands, and the women tried to protect them). “These are centuries-old traditions, and I will continue to defend them," Zehri said of the practice of burying independent-minded girls alive.

Then there is Pakistan's new education minister, Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani. Last year, the Supreme Court ordered him arrested for allegedly heading a local council that decided to solve a feud by taking five little girls and marrying them to men in an enemy clan. The girls were between the ages of two and five, according to Samar Minallah, a Pakistani anthropologist who investigated the case (Bijarani has denied involvement).

While there are no easy solutions, there are several useful steps the West can take to reduce the risk of the region turning into the next Somalia.

First, we should slow the financial flow to Pakistan. If the government wants to stop the Talibanization of Pakistan, its greatest need isn't money but the political will to stop sheltering Taliban leaders in Quetta.

Second, we should cut tariffs on Pakistani agricultural and manufactured products. We should also support China on its planned export-processing zone to create jobs in Pakistan.

Third, we should push for a peace deal in Kashmir as Kashmir grievances empower Pakistani militants. Fourth, let's focus on education. One reason the country is such a mess today is that half of all Pakistanis are illiterate.

In southern Punjab a couple of days ago, I dropped in on a rural elementary school where only one teacher had shown up that day. He was teaching the entire student body under a tree, in part because the school doesn't have desks for the first three grades.

One happy note: I visited a school run by a California-based aid group, Developments in Literacy (DIL), which represents a successful American effort to fight extremism. DIL is financed largely by Pakistani-Americans trying to “give back," and it runs 150 schools in rural Pakistan, teaching girls in particular.

Tauseef Hyat, the Islamabad-based executive director of DIL, notes that originally the plan was to operate just primary schools, but then a group of 11-year-old girls threatened to go on hunger strike unless DIL helped them continue their education in high school. Hyat caved, and some of those girls are now studying to become doctors.

Obama should make his first presidential trip to Pakistan—and stop at a DIL school to remind Pakistan's army and elites that their greatest enemy isn't India but illiteracy.

©2008/The New York Times

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