The murder of Salman Taseer by one of his own bodyguards shows how perilous the situation in Pakistan is. We all know about how Islamist extremists have taken root in Pakistan’s tribal territories. But Taseer was governor of the Punjab, the country’s largest province, and one that is (or perhaps I should say was) far removed from the kind of violent extremism found on the frontier. Events of recent years — from the 2007 murder of Benazir Bhutto to the siege the same year of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, and now Taseer’s assassination — show how the plague of extremism is spreading and infecting Pakistan’s population centers.
The army and in particular its Inter Services Intelligence Agency have long played a double game, trying to preserve an essentially secular regime in Islamabad while also funding and training extremists operating in Afghanistan and Kashmir and even farther afield (e.g., the Mumbai attacks). Taseer’s death — for the sin of protesting the fundamentalist “blasphemy” laws that permit the persecution of anyone deemed offensive to the most conservative religious sensibilities — shows yet again how untenable that double game is. Sooner or later the army, which is the real power in Pakistan, must choose between the paths of moderation and extremism.
The United States can influence the choice only at the margins, but we must do what we can to signal to the army leadership that we will stand behind them if they decide to do more to take on the radicals. In this connection, it is highly useful that President Obama has agreed to NATO’s timeline not to transition security responsibility in Afghanistan until 2014. That should put to rest some immediate concerns about America’s fickleness as an ally and reassure the Pakistani army that we will stand with the forces of moderation in Pakistan should they do more to battle the growing religious extremism that threatens the very survival of the state.