Experts have urged U.S. lawmakers to press Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf to take stronger action against al-Qaida and other Islamic extremists, and crackdown on radical "madrassas" or Islamic schools spreading extremist ideology. VOA's Dan Robinson reports on a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill.
Despite President Musharraf's cooperation in acting against al-Qaida and other groups seeking to destabilize the government in Afghanistan, U.S. lawmakers worry he has not done enough to counter the influence of religious extremists using the country's education system to spread harmful ideologies.
According to the U.S. State Department, Pakistan remains a major source of Islamic extremism, and a safe haven for top extremist leaders.
Experts and key non-government organizations have sounded alarm bells, asserting while Pakistan has received about $10 billion from the U.S. since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, aid has lagged for education and public out-reach programs that could help improve the image of the U.S. among Pakistanis and counter the impact of radical madrassas.
According to Pakistan government figures, about 12,000 madrassas operate in the country, while other estimates say the number could be as high as 20,000.
Congressman John Tierney, a Democrat who heads the subcommittee on national security and foreign affairs, says extremism and Jihadi curriculum are part of a larger picture.
"The Pakistani people are treading water during a rising tide of extremism, a tide that threatens their society and their children's futures, a tide that exposes our soldiers in Afghanistan to attack, and a tide that threatens us here at home to a gathering new generational wave of terror," said John Tierney.
In its report on the 2001 al-Qaida terrorist attacks against the United States, the independent September 11 Commission recommended intensified efforts by the U.S. to convey a positive image in the Islamic world, including the use of public diplomacy and education.
Christopher Kojm, a deputy director of the September 11 Commission, faults both the Bush administration and Congress for inadequately funding such efforts.
"Our country needs a strategy for educational assistance that is part of our overall foreign policy strategy for this part of the world, and we need to fund it [but] we're just not funding it at any level that is appreciable that can make a difference," said Christopher Kojm.
Kojm asserts the U.S. is "moving backwards" on scholarship, library and education programs, noting that security concerns have contributed to the closure of facilities, and limited access at certain overseas posts.
Appearing by video link from Pakistan, Samina Ahmed, South Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group, said the Pakistan government has failed to dismantle "Jihadi" madrassas or effectively regulate their curriculum.
"Extremist madrassas are still distributing Jihadi material," noted Samina Ahmed. "There are still no ways of telling in any meaningful way, the means of funding, the donors of these madrassas, how many foreign students are still there, and even the madrassas that are linked to the banned Jihadi groups are still flourishing."
Aside from what she calls a tiny fringe radical element, Ahmed says the vast majority of Pakistanis are moderate and democratic, supporting ideals the U.S. stands for.
She suggests the U.S. establish benchmarks for future aid to Pakistan, requiring reform of madrassas and closure of radical Jihadi schools, while stating clear support for a transition back to democracy after upcoming elections and opposition to any military intervention.
Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow on South Asia at The Heritage Foundation agrees, and advocates a stronger approach by Washington on the question the permissive environment of Pakistan's government on radical groups madrassas.
"We have to use skillful diplomacy to persuade the Pakistan government to shut down completely all militant groups, and to reform or close down those madrassas promoting violence and extremism," said Lisa Curtis.
Curtis adds the U.S. needs to accept that only a few madrassas represent a terrorist threat, and avoid being seen as opposing traditional madrassas and their form of Islamic education and social service.
Craig Cohen, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, urges an increase in the percentage of U.S. aid to Pakistan going for education from the current level of about 3.4 percent.
"Let's become the country that provides opportunity for young Pakistanis, rather than the country that is at war with Islam, which is how we are perceived today," urged Craig Cohen. "We can't sacrifice our short-term security but our long-term security may depend on such a shift."
Rather than conditioning future aid to Pakistan on specific reforms, Cohen suggests Congress take a harder look at how assistance is apportioned and seek greater accountability.
U.S. officials have appeared before previous hearings on Capitol Hill to testify about steps the Bush administration has taken to press President Musharraf and his government to take stronger action against extremist elements.
However, Congressman Tierney said the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development declined the committee's invitation, apparently because they were not scheduled to appear first, before the non-government witnesses.
Tierney called the decision "questionable and unacceptable," adding that another hearing could be scheduled to obtain the latest administration positions.