January 2, 2008 -- THE death of Benazir Bhutto in a suicide-ter ror operation last week has pushed Pakistan, often regarded as a backwater in South Asia, into headlines as never before.
There's no doubt that Pakistan deserves attention, provided this isn't for the wrong reasons. Although Pakistan has been a key battleground in the global War on Terror since 2001, it's little understood (not to say much misunderstood) in the West.
One American pundit asserts that Bhutto's death represents "Washington's policy failure in Pakistan." The claim is based on the belief that Bhutto was nothing but an instrument of US policy.
But Benazir and Gen. Pervez Musharraf never did anything they didn't want to do simply because the Americans, or anybody else, asked for it.
Another myth since Benazir's death is that she was a victim of the Pakistani security services. The accusation is so childish that it wouldn't have merited attention had it not received global currency from conspiracy theorists.
Secret services may have hit men and hired assassins but don't have suicide killers. That's a specialty of Islamist terror groups. Had the Pakistani secret services wished to kill Benazir, they would've organized a massive explosion like the one that the Syrian secret service used to kill former Lebanese Premier Rafiq Hariri in 2005.
Another myth is that Islamists are about to sweep the general election and seize power.
Today, Pakistani Islamists are at their weakest in terms of popular support. Their coalition, known as the United Action Assembly (MMA), has fragmented, its components spending more time fighting each other than their secular enemies.
In the last election, the Islamists collected some 11 percent of the votes. They would be lucky to do as well next week. Their best-known figure, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, may lose his seat.
The Islamists have held sway in the Northwest Frontier province, one of the four that constitute Pakistan, for four years and have a record of failures. They've proved the bankruptcy of their sick ideology. I doubt they would fool many Pakistanis much longer.
Although some 98 percent of Pakistanis are Muslims, few wish to live under anything resembling the Iranian regime.
Despite decades of misery under military rule, most Pakistanis cherish pluralism and free elections.
One British magazine has come out with a cover story that Pakistan is about to fall to the Taliban. This turns out to be based on a claim that "Taliban-like" groups are assuming power in parts of a mountainous enclave known as South Waziristan.
Readers might not know that the enclave covers half of 1 percent of Pakistan's territory.
South Waziristan's population is less than half a million, compared to the total Pakistani population of 169 million.
Even then, there's no evidence that the enclave is being taken over by Taliban-style groups or "Arab Afghans," as foreign terrorists are called.
What's happening is the emergence of new groups of young armed men, often wearing long hair and beards, looking for fame and fortune.
Basically, they're bandits, continuing a tradition begun more than 2,000 years ago. Alexander the Great tried to crush their ancestors by force, but failed. He then decided to use gold where steel had failed, and succeeded.
Today, too, the best policy would be buying the armed groups rather than "dishonoring" them in the battlefield, something no tribal warrior worth his salt would tolerate. (This is, perhaps, why Congress has just approved a package of $800 million for Waziristan.)
Finally, we are invited to worry because Pakistan's nuclear weapons may fall into the hands of the Taliban and/or al Qaeda.
There's no evidence, however, that the Pakistani army is about to fall apart or that the nuclear arsenal, put under Musharraf's direct control after he stepped down as army chief, is in any danger.
No, Pakistan isn't falling apart.
No, Islamists are not about to seize power.
There's no need to declare martial law, as some commentators suggest. There was no reason to postpone the elections.
Pakistan needs more, not less, democracy. The faster Pakistan returns to full civilian rule, the safer it will be - and with it the rest of us also.