The West's clichés about Pakistan and Afghanistan don't match the signs of democratic progress or opposition to Islamic radicals like the Taliban.
Americans are inclined to write off Pakistan and Afghanistan as chronic hotbeds of Islamic fanaticism, beset with weak governance and prone to tampering by big powers. Better to accept the stereotypes and withdraw aid, troops, and then hope for stable democracy. At best, let drones or Navy SEALs pick off Taliban or Al Qaeda who are menacing the West.
Well, not so fast.
On May 11, Pakistan is set to reach a milestone with its first democratic transfer of civilian power. That’s because the government of Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf was able to complete a full, five-year term in March, allowing it to call for an election.
A peaceful transition would be quite an achievement for a nation with a history of military coups, massive corruption, terrorist bombings, factional politics, high-level assassinations, paranoia about India, and devastating floods and earthquakes.
Most of all, it would signify progress toward Pakistan seeing itself as both a Muslim and democratic state. The conflict between those two identities has dogged the South Asian nation ever since independence 66 years ago, with jihadists often allowed to operate openly.
The May election will also mark the first time that political parties will be allowed to compete for the vote in the tribal areas, home to the most radical Islamic groups. The nation’s constitutional process will be geographically complete.
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, dozens of villages in an area once seen as a Taliban stronghold are showing signs of rising up against the militants because of their violent brutality and heavy-handed influence.