WASHINGTON, April 8 (UPI) -- Karachi, Pakistan's only port city, is a mega-conglomerate of 20 million that is now under a reign of fear induced by a "Taliban mafia."
But the Pakistani picture projected abroad is of political parties negotiating their differences peacefully.
And if all goes according to plan, U.S. scholars tell us this will be the first time in the country's short history of 66 years that a democratically elected government has completed a full 5-year term and transferred power to a civilian government.
Behind the facade of democratic normalcy, the army, which has ruled Pakistan more than half its lifetime, still keeps a watchful eye on the country's vital signs. More than 33,000 civilians lost their lives in the past year to terrorist attacks.
Former President Pervez Musharraf, the army's former top commander, ruled Pakistan until his peaceful ouster in 2008 and he is now back after five years of self-imposed exile. He senses the moment is fast approaching when the military or a strong leader will be seen yet again as the providential savior of the nation.
In this country of 185 million, for the most part dirt poor, free Koranic schools (madrassas), whose strictly religious curriculum is peppered with slogans directed against heathen Americans, Israelis and Indians, churn out up to 1 million 16-year-olds a year.
They are persuaded, from their teachings, that only violence will keep Islam free of decadent Western interlopers. And they make excellent candidates for acts of sabotage against anyone who subscribes to Western prejudices.
The outgoing government and its temporary caretaker stand-in are seen as maneuvers to prevent Taliban from seizing the reins of power.
The future for a moderate government that would work with the United States to strengthen democracy looks bleak.
It is "Mission: Impossible" for such a government to cope with a collapsing economy, endemic corruption, widespread violence and the salting away of domestic assets that would throttle what's left of the economy.
The army's 10 corps commanders have no urgent ambition to take over. Their Inter-Services Intelligence operatives keep tabs on two principal contenders -- Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister who was ousted by Musharraf, then the army chief, in 2001; and current President Asif Ali Zardari, whose wife was the late former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, assassinated in 2007.
Bhutto's son Bilawal is in his mid-20's and chairman of a formidable political party, the Pakistan Peoples Party.
Assessing all the pros and cons, Nawaz Sharif appears to be the strongest. Virulently anti-U.S., he would welcome a perceived U.S. defeat in Afghanistan.
Zardari wouldn't welcome a U.S. defeat but he sees it as inevitable. Beyond the self-imposed 2014 deadline when U.S., NATO and other allied forces are scheduled to be out of Afghanistan, the U.S. Congress is expected to pony up $10 billion a year to keep Afghan forces in the ongoing fight against Taliban.
The same assumption was made about the U.S. Congress continuing to fund South Vietnamese forces after the last U.S. soldier left Vietnam March 29, 1973. ARVN (army), VNAF (air) and VNN (navy) fought on for two years with the equivalent of $12 billion a year -- until Congress cut off any further aid. ARVN morale dropped like a stone -- and Saigon fell to the Communists two months later.
Today, only one brigade out of 23 of the Afghan national army is ready to take on independent military operations. Nine-out-of-10 recruits are both illiterate and innumerate.
Former Pakistani nuclear scientist and anti-American hero Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan -- known as AQK -- advocates global militant Islamism and chairs Tehreek-e-Tahafuz-e-Pakistan, Movement for the Defense of Pakistan.
AQK has been tweeting -- e.g., greetings to Prophet Muhammad for his birthday and to Pakistan's cricket team when it wins, along with self-congratulatory messages about the country's nuclear program, and links to his columns in Roznama Jang and The News; and a nod to international Islamism -- "Pakistan is bound to become the future headquarters of the world Islamic government."
AQK, Jamat Islami and 12 other parties have agreed to contest the May 11 general elections, which he says will stop "the U.S. aggression of Drones and pull the country back from the abyss of decay and destruction by shortsighted and incompetent rulers ... who are busy serving the U.S. interest and looting our national resources for their vested interests..."
It is hard to find a kernel of truth in the totally free Pakistani media. A common media denominator is the oft-repeated assertion that the United States is preparing a war against Pakistan.
Popular talk shows debate possible scenarios for how Pakistan should defend itself after the United States attacks the country. Not if it should attack but when it attacks. There is no code of conduct in a medium where spreading venom against the United States is a common denominator.
Discussions about what follows the rupture of relations between the two allies are also routine, including a possible war that would follow.
A prominent anti-U.S. band leader is the former intelligence chief Gen. Hamid Gul who is now saying that "American threats are actually a blessing in disguise as they have united the whole nation."
Gul also asserts with the authority of a former spy chief that the U.S. wants to give arch rival India a "proxy role" in Afghanistan and that American actions now risk "the dangers of a third world war."
The United States is Pakistan's largest aid donor but so far the United States has been unable to convert this to a less hostile view of U.S. policy.
The sharp display of anti-U.S. sentiment reflects deep divisions, mistrust and suspicions that condition the relationship.
A communication strategy is missing in action. And the totally free Pakistani media exacerbate what is already long established anti-U.S. prejudice.
Pakistani media are also the principal opposition to moderate forces fighting for survival.