Jihad Strikes a Blow in Pakistan

How the assassination of Salman Taseer threatens U.S. success in Afghanistan.

For the second time in three years, the beleaguered nation of Pakistan has lost one of its most prominent secular reformers to Islamic radicalism. Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s populous Punjab Province, was killed Tuesday in broad daylight by Malik Mumtaz Qadri, a member of the governor's own security detail. The assassination was expressly political, with Qadri citing Taseer’s opposition to Pakistan’s Islamic blasphemy laws as the motivation behind the killing. The tragedy leaves much uncertainty and turmoil in its wake, especially with respect to Pakistan's willingness to help pacify anti-American forces in neighboring Afghanistan. The event also puts into question the viability of the fragile Pakistani secularist movement in the face of burgeoning violent fundamentalism.

Taseer was a member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, a secular reformist party once represented by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto, a champion of modernity in Pakistan, was also murdered in a fundamentalist gun-and-bomb attack in 2007. In fact, Taseer’s death comes within days of the anniversary of his compatriot’s assassination, a grim commemoration of the event. Like Bhutto, Taseer vocally advocated for women and minority rights. Ms. Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, is Pakistan’s current president and was close to Taseer.

Taseer had aggressively carried on Bhutto’s legacy, becoming one of Pakistan’s foremost opponents of Islamic extremism. In the weeks preceding his death, Teseer faced intense opposition from Islamist elements over his objection to the country’s draconian blasphemy laws, which carry the penalty of death. In a highly publicized case, a Christian woman named Asia Bibi, who lived in Punjab, was sentenced to death for a blasphemy offense. She is currently in prison and is appealing her sentence. Taseer publicly supported Bibi and railed against the blasphemy laws, which prompted Islamist factions to call for his ouster. Some groups issued an edict of blasphemy for his involvement in the case.

Qadir's intention was to fulfill this decree. He was led away from the scene smiling over his instrumentality in Allah's divine justice. “I am a slave of the Prophet,” he told a television crew, “and the punishment for one who commits blasphemy is death.”

Taseer’s death is a setback for the U.S. in its effort to foster Pakistan’s secular faction, which the U.S. considers to be a key ally in the fight to stop Islamists along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and who control affiliated Taliban networks in both countries. The U.S. has been pushing for cooperation from the Pakistani government in the War in Afghanistan, which is intimately dependent on the degree of power held by fundamentalist factions relative to reformers. A weakened secular party undermines the country’s ability to combat internal extremist elements.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen was reportedly “hugely concerned” with the incident, but also expressed optimism that Pakistan would persevere. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton “strongly condemn[ed]” the action, but issued a relatively milquetoast response, probably to avoid inflaming delicate political circumstances in the country.

The continuance of a cooperative government is very much in question in light of the assassination. Political and economic instability in Pakistan in recent years has been a major impediment to U.S. objectives in Afghanistan. Taseer’s murder is projected to further stymie the Pakistan People’s Party government, which recently lost its majority after a key coalition partner (the Muttahida Qaumi Movement) rescinded its support.

The leading opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League, has said it may issue a motion of non-confidence in the next 45 days if the government does not enact a number of measures, such as cutting spending and fighting corruption. The Obama administration opposes some of these measures because it believes Pakistan's rich should be tapped to provide relief to the country’s poor, which the administration believes will deter them from becoming radicalized.

Malik Qadri, however, was certainly not one of Pakistan’s poor, untutored masses. Qadri’s actions underscore how pervasive Islamist forces in Pakistan are, even among those gainfully employed in high-level government positions. Indeed, the assassination has renewed fears of further jihadi infiltration throughout the government. This is to say nothing of the fear that covert elements could someday gain access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, which a leaked U.S. Embassy cable publicized by WikiLeaks revealed was a live concern for the U.S. government. At the very least, the movement to repeal the country’s blasphemy laws had been dealt a serious blow and may not resume for quite some time.

“Show me another party where the leaders are being murdered, and why is that?” said a tearful Farahnaz Ispahani, presidential spokeswoman. “Because we are standing up for Quaid-i-Azam’s [secular] Pakistan, and against extremism and terrorism.” Isphani’s observation on the assassination resonates most of all. How a fundamentally humanistic coalition like the Pakistan People's Party can overcome such barbaric opposition is deeply unclear.

Ryan Mauro contributed to this report.