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Pakistan Teeters

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In newspapers the day after Christmas I saw a photo of Pakistani Christians celebrating their holiday in fear that they will be attacked by Muslim neighbors.

I too sat with the Pakistani Christians in Lahore a few years ago and heard terrible stories of the fear they face in their villages. Any Muslim can denounce them for blasphemy -- a blanket crime that can include cursing the Muslim prophet (but not the Christian prophet); scrawling what appeared to be an oath in the sand with their feet; burning a page of the Quran; and even refusal to accept forcible conversion to Islam and a forced marriage to a Muslim. Once forcibly converted, any attempt to go back to their families and the Christian faith becomes apostasy -- punishable by death in the Islamic state of Pakistan.

The fate of the three million Christian Pakistanis reminds us of the Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany and it symbolizes the rapid slide back from modernity into intolerance and debauched nationalism that has increasingly seized the nuclear-armed U.S. ally.

Indeed, just like the Christian girls forced into Muslim faith and marriage, the United States is in a forced marriage with the Islamabad leadership of Pakistan.

While Taliban and other fighters protected by Pakistan cross the border to attack and kill U.S. troops and our NATO and Afghan allies, the Pakistan army denies that the Taliban exist inside Pakistan -- just as it denies it knew Osama bin Laden was living in Abbottabad a few hundred yards from the military academy.

The U.S. response to Pakistan's refusal to arrest the Taliban leaders -- or to occupy the North Waziristan tribal area where the Haqqani network and other al Qaeda-like groups shelter -- is to reward Pakistan with cash.

On Dec. 6, Deputy U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told Congress that the U.S. would pay Pakistan $688 million for fielding 140,000 troops along the Afghan border from June through November 2011.

Carter reportedly wrote in his letter to Congress that "the reimbursement is consistent with the national security interest of the United States and will not adversely affect the balance of power in the region."

Our quarrel with Pakistan over the Afghan war goes further. Pakistan is believed to have organized an explosion at the Indian embassy in Kabul, attacked U.S. diplomatic areas, shelled U.S. forces across the border, and supported terrorist groups such as Lashkar i Toiba which sent fighters into Kashmir; and killers into Bombay where they murdered 164 people including leaders of a small Jewish center.

At a recent gathering of old Pakistan Hands held at the suburban Washington home of Dr. Nissar Chaudhry, a Pakistani-American dentist and political activist in search of peace, all of us lamented the persistent slide of Pakistan's weak civilian leaders and powerful military leaders into what appears to be barely-controlled chaos.

"Stop me before I injure myself and others" appears to be the political philosophy of modern Pakistan.

"U.S.-Pakistan relations are wrong -- both sides realize they are heading for a meltdown," said journalist Jonathan Landay. He warned that whether Pakistan and America will be friends or foes depends on the process of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of 2014. "Can Afghanistan and Pakistan work out a way to live and let live without the United States?" he asked.

Rodney Jones, a South Asia expert and analyst said that the United States "accepts" that Pakistan will determine the path of Afghan government talks with the Taliban, Haqqani network and other militants. But the new opening for trade across the frozen Indo-Pakistani frontier could open the door to big profits that could lead Pakistan to manage its surrogate terror groups now going wildly out of control and killing ministers, Shiites and all who disagree with their extreme views.

I pointed out that Pakistanis had told me for several years that instead of sending foreign aid, which does not reach many people due to corruption and insecurity, the United States should allow Pakistani textiles into the United States at low or zero import duties, creating millions of jobs in Pakistan.

Marvin Weinbaum, former State Department intelligence analyst, said that Pakistan must address its own problems... it lacks leadership."

A Pakistani diplomat at the gathering said that after three decades of war in Afghanistan, improved relations with Kabul would not take place overnight "We do not want Pakistani-U.S. relations to get sucked into the Afghan" conflict, he said.

Medea Benjamin, the feisty co-founder of the anti-war group Code Pink, said that she had just returned from a trip to Pakistan's tribal areas and "Pakistani people feel they are seen by the United States as disposable" and can be killed by drones without any problems.

Dr. Chaudhry -- who has led teams of Pakistani-American doctors and other professionals to work on aid projects in Pakistan and to visit India on a peace and communications mission -- reminded us that 18,000 Muslim fighters were trained by U.S. and Saudi programs to fight the Soviet Army which occupied Afghanistan from 1979 to 1990.

"Pakistan pays the price" because some mujahideen fighters stayed behind.

But despite the regrettable blowback of armed religious zealots left behind from U.S. backing for the Afghan mujahideen, and despite my own personal gratitude for the many kindnesses shown me by Dr. Chaudhry and hundreds of others I have met in Pakistan while on assignments as a reporter and aid worker, the awful blunders made by the really ill-willed and ignorant in Pakistan continue to amaze.

Shooting a dozen aid workers who were trying to save innocent lives with polio vaccines is the most recent outrage. A few weeks earlier a heroic Taliban gunman shot a high school girl on her school bus because she advocated girls education. Shooting captured soldiers or mass slayings of Shiites takes place on a daily basis it seems.

I apologized to Dr. Chaudhry and to the Pakistani diplomat present at our dinner meeting. It's hard to eat a man's bread or chepatties and then tell him his homeland is a dangerous and uncivilized place. He is painfully aware of the crimes that soil Pakistan's reputation worldwide. The big question is what can he or any of us do to change things.