[Co-written with Salman Ahmad, founder of the Pakistani rock group Junoon, a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador and author of the forthcoming book Rock and Roll Jihad (Simon and Schuster).
Not to entirely spoil the ending of "Charlie Wilson's War," but the movie and book both suggested that the Cold War suffered from a spoiled ending -- and now, in the cities and frontiers of Pakistan, we must pick up where that war left off.
Before fading out, a quote on the movie screen captures Charlie Wilson's own mixed assessment of how we hastened the fall of the Soviet empire: "These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world... And then we [bleeped] up the endgame."
Pakistan's nearly three million internally displaced persons (IDPs), fleeing the Pakistan army's campaign against Taliban forces, symbolize the spoiled ending, nearly three decades after the United States first took an Af-Pak interest.
The "bleeping" has been a bipartisan affair -- neither Carter, Reagan, Clinton nor either Bush could credibly evade blame. Consider how the flood of millions of Afghan refugees into Pakistan after the Cold War drained Pakistan and led to an explosion of extremism, while American leaders were too busy celebrating the Cold War victory to fret about the Af-Pak aftermath. This is a Groundhog Day moment, with a chance to get it right.
In Pakistan and other nations where cricket is king, the underdog Pakistani team shocked observers by winning the Twenty20 World Cup finals in London. The moment demonstrated Pakistanis' gritty determination in pursuing a clearly defined goal. That determination must be tangibly supported as Pakistanis move on with the grimmer business of attending to dislocated orphans and fighting off religious extremists.
President Obama's global diplomacy has snidely been dubbed a "global apology tour" by critics precisely because he has shown an adult's ability to understand and admit publicly how our own actions create unintended consequences that vex us and our allies. That maturity may at last inform a better policy in South Asia. In another positive development, separate House and Senate bills would triple economic aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion over each of the next five years, although the House version would enact conditions not favored by the White House.
Yet the desperate order of the day involves Pakistan's wave of new refugees. United Nations Secretary Ban-Ki Moon recently declared that $543 million is necessary to provide the most basic services to Pakistan's three million displaced women, children and men.
Those IDPs will become the heroes who braved difficult conditions while Pakistan saved its own soul -- or they will become the recruiting pool for the next generation of extremists.
The Taliban are ethnically indigenous to the region, but culturally, they reflect a foreign strain of extremist dogma that is antithetical to the Asian subcontinent (that foreign strain of mujahideen was intentionally imported to Pakistan in the 1980s by American leaders who believed that such fanatics made the best anti-communist killers; it would take years before we would realize that they may have unrivaled skills in killing us as well). Such forces have gained traction only in an environment deprived of hope.
Many Pakistanis thought little about the Taliban even in recent years, until they began to witness televised scenes that included teenage girls being flogged, girls' schools being bombed and policemen being intimidated. While indigenous artists such Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan brought down walls of division by collaborating with musicians throughout South Asia and the West, the Taliban has sought to suppress the arts that animate Pakistani culture.
Thus Pakistanis are now more fully engaged than ever in fighting the Taliban. Yet while the Pakistani army uses hard power to seize Pakistan back from extremists, America has a chance to use soft and smart power to show a trustworthy face to that corner of the world that Obama has flashed in brief glimpses. It begins with support for the camps overburdened with new refugees, and extends to the ongoing nurturing of the best qualities within Pakistan's cultural and civil society.
Charlie Wilson's war is now everyone's war -- and, thankfully, we can unspoil an awful ending. Indeed, within that nuclear-hot region, we should consider ourselves grateful to have one more crack at the end game.