Situation worsens in Pakistan; security increased for Asia Bibi

The assasination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer has made political instability even more likely in Pakistan. Never far from collapse, the current government is facing multiple challenges from ongoing flood cleanup and relief to survivors to threats of violence from emboldened Islamic extremists.

New developments include:

500 Islamic “scholars” lauded the murder of Salman Taseer and praise his killer.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The increasing radicalization of Pakistani society was laid bare Wednesday when the nation’s mainstream religious organizations applauded the murder of provincial governor Salman Taseer earlier this week, while his killer was showered with rose petals as he appeared in court.

Taseer, 66, the governor of Punjab, the country’s most heavily populated province, was assassinated Tuesday by one of his police bodyguards after Taseer had campaigned to ease Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Religious groups threatened to kill others who questioned the blasphemy statute, which is designed to protect Islam and the Prophet Muhammad from “insult.”

Security around Asia Bibi has been increased due to fears that a suicide bomber will take out the prison.

The death of Taseer has not mobilized moderates and civil society. If anything, according to Pakistani observer Fareed Zakaria , the situation is worsening in the direction of the extremists and Taliban.

Zakaria: This is a huge event in Pakistan. First of all it’s important to understand what Punjab is in Pakistan. Punjab is the most populous part of Pakistan, it is the most prosperous part of Pakistan, it’s also the heart and soul of Pakistan’s governing class. The officer corps of Pakistan’s military is largely Punjabi, there are some accounts that suggest as much as 80% of the officers corps comes from Punjab.

This man, Salman Taseer, was probably the most prominent liberal or progressive politician in Pakistan today. He was a very close ally of Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani politician who was assassinated three years ago. He was a very powerful man in his own right and was famous as a crusading liberal — in particular against the forces of extremism and militant Islam.

Zakaria sums up why this issue is critical to our mission in the region. 

CNN: Why is this of concern to the United States?

Zakaria: For the United States, this issue is actually at the center of whether or not it will be able to succeed in Afghanistan. Let’s remember, the strategy in Afghanistan cannot succeed as long as there are sanctuaries for the Taliban and al Qaeda in neighboring Pakistan.

Right now what happens is the Taliban crosses the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan, regroups, gains support, logistics, resources in Pakistan, and then comes back to fight the U.S. forces or Afghan government forces. This has been the key to their ability to survive and thrive, so unless you can deal with the sanctuaries in Pakistan, you’re not going to make any headway in Afghanistan.

The entire leadership of al Qaeda and the leadership of the worst elements of the Taliban are all in Pakistan now. In order to deal with that, to destroy those terrorist groups, the Pakistani army has to be willing to go into the areas where these various groups have their strongholds, mostly in a part of Pakistan called North Waziristan.

So far, the Pakistani army has refused to do so. The most important reason is that they fear a backlash within Pakistan. They’re too nervous about the political consequences of having this frontal struggle against Islamic extremism. So if you can’t confront Islamic extremism with things like the blasphemy law, what hope is there that they actually go ahead and mount large-scale military operations in North Waziristan?

I suspect this line of thinking informs the Obama administration and may explain why the White House has made only general statements about blasphemy laws and to my knowledge not publicly condemned the plight of Asia Bibi. In some of the Pakistani rallies in favor of the blasphemy laws, “death to America” is also a rally cry.

We also have a multi-billion dollar investment in Pakistan but the elements which oppose us don’t care if we remove it – at least this is my take on it at this point. I suspect there are Islamic governments that would be happy to supply extremists with funds if they were in charge of the country. We have few carrots and seem reluctant to use our sticks.

And finally, here is an article with citations from my new British friend, Raza Anjum. Raza has been in Pakistan for weeks attempting to see Asia Bibi and win her release. I also provided his assessment of the situation with quotes from Taseer Salman just days before he was murdered.

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  • Richard Willmer

    This situation is highly disturbing. Of course, it will be Pakistanis who will suffer most if things continue to deteriorate (as looks likely at the moment).

    The power of the extremists seems very great at the moment; this is making it very hard for saner voices to be heard. It is hard to see how even the use of ‘sticks’ (never mind ‘carrots’) will help – these extremists don’t care about their compatriots’ well being. They are mired in a totalitarian ideology (as opposed to following a genuine religion), and this is all that seems to matter to them. They also use western ‘mistakes’ (if mistakes they are*) to justify their own barbarism.

    * My view is the West HAS made mistakes, and President Obama is right to proceed very carefully at this point.