Steve Chapman

If you want Americans to pay attention to Pakistan -- not an easy thing to do -- your best bet is to conjure up images of Armageddon. The Obama administration, being put out with the Islamabad government, has decided understatement is no virtue. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently pronounced Pakistan nothing less than "a mortal threat" because it is "abdicating to the Taliban."

If you've heard the scare story, you probably haven't slept in days. The country's Taliban has forced the imposition of Islamic law in one area, under a truce reached with the national government, and its forces recently advanced to just 60 miles from the capital. That raises the specter of Muslim radicals seizing power, getting their hands on the country's nuclear weapons and handing them off to al-Qaida.

From there, it's presumably just a matter of time before Manhattan goes up in a mushroom cloud. Given that scenario, it's no surprise to find Time magazine reporting that "if Pakistan collapses, the U.S. military is primed to enter the country and secure as many of those weapons as it can."

But if there is any way to induce the Pakistani military to give its nukes over to extremist cells, a U.S. military invasion is probably it. We run the risk of getting carried away by scenarios that are terrifying but also highly unlikely. In the process, American policymakers are making the questionable assumption that they know better than a democratically elected Islamabad government how to ensure its survival.

The threat from the Taliban has a tendency to shrink upon close examination. The group is a small one of modest military capacity. Says the British magazine The Economist, "there is no chance" of the Taliban seizing the capital: "If, unthinkably, the disparate warlords who make up the Pakistani Taliban were to mass together for a frontal attack, Pakistan's army, which is 620,000-strong and well-drilled for conventional warfare, could crush them."

In addition, radical Islam has scant support among Pakistanis, the vast majority of whom vote for mainstream political parties. Expanding the Taliban's base in a country with a rising economy and long experience with democracy would be much harder than seizing power in Afghanistan -- a primitive, war-ravaged society with a history of ungovernability.

Our beef with the Pakistani government is that it shows little appetite for eradicating the militants. But that preference is not necessarily blind or cowardly.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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