As I wait for the New Year's ball to drop in Times Square, I see the Associated Press has some good news to end the year on, US Ups Extremist Fight in Pakistan:
The U.S. has created a new unit in Pakistan that aims to leverage such grassroots efforts by working with local moderates to counter violent extremism — the first of its kind set up by an American embassy anywhere in the world, according to U.S. officials here. The existence of the unit has never before been reported.
[Fazal ur Rehman, a cleric who conducts madrasa lectures aimed at countering violent extremism] and other clerics attempting to challenge extremism in Pakistan recently met with U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter in Islamabad, though the 50-year-old Rehman says he has not yet received support from the Americans.
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The U.S. chose Pakistan as the site for its new venture because it is home to a vast network of Islamist militants who have been fighting U.S.-led troops in neighboring Afghanistan for over a decade and have even organized attacks on American soil.
The three-person unit in the U.S. Embassy public affairs section was established in July. It plans to work with local partners, including moderate religious leaders, to project their counter-extremist messages and push back against the militants' extensive propaganda machine, said U.S. officials.
It will use TV shows, documentaries, radio programs and posters. It also intends to ramp up exchange programs for religious leaders and public outreach to conservative Muslims who previously had little contact with American officials.
"There are a lot of courageous voices speaking out against extremism here in Pakistan," said Tom Miller, head of public affairs at the U.S. Embassy. "Our job is to find out how we can amplify those narratives."
The unit is just now ramping up operations, said officials. It was funded with an initial budget of $5 million that officials hope will grow. Officials declined to provide details on specific programs they are funding or plan to fund, for fear that publicly acknowledging U.S. involvement would discredit their partners.
That's a major worry in this country where anti-American sentiment is rampant. Any cleric known to be taking U.S. help is likely to be shunned by many. There are other challenges as well. Many among clerics and the public who are considered moderates have mixed views — they often oppose the killing of innocent civilians in Pakistan, but support jihad against U.S. forces in Afghanistan or against neighboring India.
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The ambassador's visit to the 900-student Jaamia Salafia was unusual because the madrasa teaches a puritanical strain of Islam followed by some Pakistani militant organizations, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, although Zafar said he does not support the group.
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"They might disagree with how the U.S. is conducting some aspects of its foreign policy, but there is a huge opportunity to partner with these groups because of the mutual goal of stopping the Taliban," said Mehreen Farooq, who recently studied grassroots counter-extremism efforts in Pakistan for the U.S.-based World Organization for Resource Development and Education.
The most intensive component of the new U.S. initiative will be a media campaign focused on raising awareness about civilians harmed by militant attacks, said Miller, the embassy public affairs chief.
"We are trying to discredit these acts and take away the narrative that the militants are some kind of ideological heroes," said Miller.
Surveys have shown that despite varying levels of support for militant groups within Pakistan, a majority of citizens oppose attacks that target civilians. Militants in Pakistan often deny responsibility for civilian casualties.
This is intelligent strategic messaging. If drawing attention to the deaths of innocent (Muslim) victims is a tactic that will reduce public support for Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, then, by all means, let's support Pakistani clerics like Rehman and "amplify those narratives." We need not agree with them on anything else.
May 2012 be a better year for our relations with Pakistan.