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Aug 24

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Since 9/11, a decade ago, Washington has given the government of Pakistan more than $20 billion in aid. Two- thirds of that has gone to the military to fight the war on terror. The other third, about $6 billion, has gone for development of Pakistan’s civilian economy and society.The theory behind many of those billions of dollars is that by bringing Pakistan’s poorest out of poverty and despair, fewer young men will be seduced by radical Islam.As President Obama said, ”We must stand with those who want to build Pakistan.” And Secretary Clinton adds, ”Providing this assistance is not only the right thing to do, but we believe it is essential to global security and the security of the United States.”This is an admirable approach for sure; it’s a strategy the U.S. uses all over the world, from Baghdad to Bali and back.

But what if you discover that aid money does not necessarily make Pakistanis less likely to turn to terror? What if you learn that there’s actually no correlation between being poor and supporting Islamic extremism?Well, that’s what a new serious academic study seems to prove. It’s a robust survey by four academics from Princeton, Georgetown and the University of Pennsylvania that conducted extensive field research in Pakistan, interviewing 6,000 people across a broad spectrum of income groups and geography. Their findings could challenge the way we approach fighting terror, not just in Pakistan but around the world.First, they find that in general Pakistanis don’t like militant groups. Not just al Qaeda, but the other ones like the Pakistani or Afghan Taliban.

Second, contrary to conventional wisdom, poor Pakistanis dislike militant groups more than the middle classes.Third, the people who hate militants the most are the urban poor, probably because more than any other group they’re the ones who are affected by terror attacks – bombs in subways or cafes or whatever.It’s an interesting conclusion. The people we’ve long considered the likeliest candidates for extremism are actually the ones most against it.The study points out that this goes against most of the existing policy literature on the subject.It cites both the U.S. State Department and the UK’s Department for International Development as saying poverty motivates people to extreme violence.Now, giving aid to poor people is good in and of itself. But if we’ve been doing that to prevent them from becoming Islamic fundamentalists, then this study suggests we’ve been aiming at the wrong target. Perhaps our focus should be on the middle classes or on secular education.