Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s biggest province, Punjab, was gunned down by one of his own bodyguards on Jan 4. The treacherous deed done, the guard (belonging to an elite police commando unit) calmly threw down his weapon and surrendered (as prearranged with his fellow guards, according to reports). He said he had done it because the governor had publicly demanded the repeal of the country’s blasphemy law (often misused to settle personal scores). A few days earlier, religious parties had held countrywide demonstrations and enforced shutdowns to protest against the governor’s outspoken criticism of the law; one cleric even offered a reward for his assassination.
Almost as bad as the killing was the reaction to it. Respected clerics issued statements praising the murderer, and forbidding Muslims to attend the governor’s funeral. Not one of the slain governor’s colleagues criticized the incitement or the inciters; in fact, the country’s interior minister hastened to tell the media that, if he came across a blasphemer, he would shoot him himself! When the assassin was taken to the courthouse for his arraignment he was mobbed by hundreds of admirers, including lawyers, who garlanded him and showered him with rose petals.
When the neocons who controlled the Bush administration took advantage of 9/11 to launch their war to tame and reshape the Muslim world, their PR people tried to emphasize that it was not a war against Muslims or Islam. Of course, in the Muslim world it was taken as exactly that. In reaction, the influence of the radicals and fundamentalists was enhanced, since they claimed to be the true defenders of the faith. Muslim societies became increasingly radicalized, and jihad against the new “crusaders” began to gather more and more adherents. The trap that Osama bin Laden had set had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams; the radicalization that he himself had failed to engineer, the neocons had achieved for him.
For several years now I have been warning here that the biggest danger for the US and the West in the region lies in the possibility of Pakistan falling under the control of Islamists. And that the war in Afghanistan is pushing Pakistan in that direction. While acknowledging Pakistan’s importance, and trying to shore it up with billions in aid, the US refuses to see that the policies it is pursuing in Afghanistan and Pakistan run counter to each other, and actually create a serious risk that it will lose both countries.
Others also see this clearly. Anatol Lieven, a noted British scholar and journalist, who knows Pakistan and the region intimately, wrote this in a recent article:
It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the survival of Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is the most important issue for Western and global security in that region. With six times Afghanistan's population, plus nuclear weapons, a highly trained 500,000-man army and a huge diaspora (especially in Britain), Pakistan would increase the international terrorist threat by orders of magnitude if it collapsed........
If the United States continues this strategy indefinitely, the consequences for Pakistan could be dire. It has been argued (by the British military chief, Gen. Sir David Richards, for example, in Prospect magazine) that it is necessary to defeat the Afghan Taliban in order to protect Pakistan from Islamist extremism. The truth is almost exactly the opposite. More than any other factor, it is our campaign in Afghanistan that has radicalized Pakistanis and turned many of them not only against the West but against their own government and ruling system. In the worst case, the consequence of Western actions could be to destroy Pakistan as a state and produce a catastrophe that would reduce the problems in Afghanistan to insignificance by comparison.
In this article Lieven also suggests a practicable way out for the West in Afghanistan through a negotiated settlement that would preserve important Western security interests. However, the generals in Afghanistan, and their backers in Washington, are still chasing the chimera of a military victory. Recently, trial balloons have been floated with talk of US troops undertaking operations in Pakistan’s tribal areas if the Pakistanis don’t move against the insurgents there. Lieven has written about this in another recent article that he titled A March of Folly in Pakistan.
Pakistan has internal problems enough, even without the pressures of the Afghan war. Combined, they are pushing the country to the edge. The only entity that lends some stability to the country is the military; every other institution is hollowed out. Governor Taseer’s assassination highlights how fragile even the military’s structure may be. After all, its soldiers come from the same stock, the same background, as Taseer’s assassin. What is their breaking point? All it takes is one crack to start the fracturing. What is the breaking point of the weakest link?