Despite the exciting events in Iran, Honduras and the Koreas, pay attention to a less-observed drama beginning in Pakistan this week.

The drama revolves around the fate of 2 million refugees who fled a battle between Pakistan’s army and Taliban extremists in and around the Swat Valley.

The Pakistani government says the refugees can start going home this week. But they feel trapped between failed government promises and Taliban threats. Their fate will reveal whether Pakistan’s leaders really want to defeat al-Qaida and the Taliban.

The refugees’ tale reflects all the frustrations that have dogged U.S. efforts to work with Pakistanis. Their government dithered while the Taliban took control of Swat, cut off heads, and closed girls schools. But when the Taliban broke a peace pact in mid-April and advanced within 60 miles of the capital, officials woke up and sent the army in.

The good news? The Taliban’s overreach seemed to jolt Pakistanis into finally viewing them as a threat. The shift in Pakistani public opinion was stunning. Until then, much of the establishment had claimed the extremist violence was provoked by the United States and India, and rejected any efforts to crush them as “America’s war.”

But once the army attacked, the attitudes of Pakistani media and politicians shifted; this made possible greater U.S. and Pakistani cooperation on many levels. When 2 million refugees poured out of the Swat region, America had a stellar chance to do good — and boost its image by helping the refugees.

After all, as Gen. David Petraeus put it in an interview, success requires more than pushing the Taliban out. “Remember, it’s not about clearing and leaving,” Petraeus said, “it’s about clearing, holding and building, or rebuilding in cases where a lot of damage has been done.

“It is critical,” Petraeus said, “to create conditions as quickly as possible where these people can return to their homes, get services going, and reopen schools so camps don’t harden and they don’t have sustained displacement, which creates dissatisfaction.” That, in turn, would create conditions for Taliban recruitment.

So some U.S. officials suggested “Chinook diplomacy” for the new refugee wave, a replica of the massive reconstruction aid U.S. troops provided in Pakistani Kashmir after the 2005 earthquake. After all, if Pakistani public opinion had turned, surely the Swati refugees would welcome American aid.

Yet a public demonstration of U.S. help was rejected. “I said they couldn’t fly in Chinooks, no way,” said Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmad, head of the Pakistani army’s disaster-management group. He told the New York Times there would be an “extremely negative reaction” if Americans were seen distributing aid, and that it should be distributed in a “subtle” manner.

What that means is, though the vast bulk of humanitarian aid reaching the refugees is U.S.-funded, to the tune of more than $300 million, there are no Americans involved in delivering it. Most Pakistanis don’t know where it comes from.

And guess what? Though the U.S. fingerprint on its aid is invisible, anti-American Islamist charity groups are openly working the camps, setting up clinics, giving out food, and recruiting for jihad.

Of course, the sight of Chinooks ferrying aid would probably rev up Pakistani conspiracy theories that America and India want to establish bases in Swat. I kid you not. Pakistani media are full of such theories, which they are pumping out again after a pause during the Swat crisis.

Moreover, Petraeus stresses that the Pakistani military wants to show it can handle this matter by itself. “They don’t want our Chinooks flying,” he says. “We can encourage others to give and we are providing (them with) helicopters, military supplies, and money. But there is sensitivity to the visibility of the United States. The Pakistanis, commendably, are determined to show they can do it on their own.”

That makes sense. But what if the Pakistanis aren’t up to the job? In phone conversations with Swatis and Pakistani journalists, I’m told the refugees don’t trust government claims that it’s safe to return. They point out that the government has yet to capture or kill any senior Taliban leader, reinforcing the belief that Pakistani officials want to maintain a Taliban card to brandish against India.

And if the refugees do flood back, what happens if there are no jobs or reconstruction aid? The Taliban could make a comeback. So it’s essential that Congress deliver the $7.5 billion in aid and development funds President Obama has requested. And with Pakistan’s weak performance in the camps providing little confidence that officials will deliver on development promises, American help may be essential to get the job done.

So why shouldn’t Pakistani leaders welcome a chance to improve America’s image with their public, by letting Americans play a more open role in reconstruction? President Asaf Zardari seems open to this idea. But other Pakistani politicians appear more interested in stirring up anti-American feelings while taking American money. Have we no leverage here?

I spoke to one prominent Swat businessman who hopes the United States will help build a free-trade zone in Swat to create jobs that will keep locals from joining the Taliban. He rejected the idea that this aid should be kept secret.

“If the United States is interested in helping to develop the area, people should know about it, because . . . it would encourage them to return,” says Noor Muhammad Khan. “It is high time the people knew how much the U.S. has given and what future plans they have. It will have benefits for both of us.” Indeed.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her e-mail address is: [email protected]

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