The international community has been shocked and sickened by reaction in Pakistan to the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer. Support for the Governor’s murderer was found not only within the religious parties but also from lawyers, parts of the media, and even some politicians from the mainstream political parties. This has been a wake-up call for U.S. policymakers, who now see that support for extremist ideologies is much broader and deeper in Pakistani society than previously understood.
In the midst of the horrific demonization of the late Taseer, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari rightly defended him last week as a man with “courage to stand up to bigots and fanatics.” Zardari’s statement provides a glimmer of hope that there are still sane voices inside Pakistan who understand that basic principles of freedom of expression and respect for minorities form the building blocks of civilized society.
Zardari also took the opportunity to emphasize the ideals that his Pakistan People’s Party — especially his late wife Benazir Bhutto — have strived for in recent years as the country stares down the abyss of a rising wave of extremism. Demonstrating he fully recognizes what’s at stake for his country in Taseer’s murder, Zardari said, “An egalitarian, tolerant, inclusive and just order that serves all the people of Pakistan remains our goal.”
The widespread support for a cold-blooded murder of a prominent leader in the name of religion has led some in the U.S. to wonder whether Pakistan has already been lost to extremism. They are asking whether U.S. aid for Pakistanis and backing of the government can make a difference in a country where fanaticism is catching like wild fire and the country’s political, civilian, and security leadership are increasingly unable to staunch the flames. The answer is yes.
The U.S. must keep faith with Pakistan’s beleaguered leadership. Statements like those from Zardari last week remind us what is at stake and why the future direction of Pakistan matters so much to the security of the civilized world.
Rather than throwing up our hands on the challenges in Pakistan and allowing extremists to increasingly dictate the direction of the region, the Obama administration must support those like Zardari who are willing to take a stand against extremist ideologies. At the same time, the U.S. must relentlessly pursue an integrated political-military strategy in both Pakistan and Afghanistan that seeks to change the calculations of the Pakistani security establishment on the costs and benefits of providing a permissive environment for militants who are fueled by these destructive ideologies.