The assassination of Salman Taseer, governor of populous Punjab Province, close friend of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and an outspoken opponent of religious extremism and Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws, highlights and deepens an ongoing crisis afflicting the country's governing party and the country itself. Unfortunately, the prominent presence of the United States in Pakistan's political affairs may exacerbate the problems rather than help to solve them.
Salman Taseer was killed by Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a member of Mr. Taseer's own elite security force, who surrendered to police and said he killed the governor because of his opposition to Pakistan's blasphemy laws and was proud rather than repentant. Early news reports said Mr. Taseer was hit by nine bullets, but a later hospital autopsy report saying he was hit 24 times raises questions of whether others were involved.
Bottom line: Pakistan's elite security forces can be, and have been, penetrated by religious extremists, a chilling thought that suggests growing extremist/jihadist power and influence.
Mr. Taseer's assassination follows the defection to the opposition of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the second-largest party in Pakistan's ruling coalition, which leaves Mr. Zardari's ostensibly secular Pakistan People's Party without a majority in Parliament. Opponents, divided among themselves, might not force a no-confidence vote, but the situation reveals just how shaky the Pakistani government is.
Ironically, as Graham E. Fuller, former CIA station chief in Kabul, Afghanistan, believes, U.S policies may be contributing to Pakistani instability. In May 2009, Mr. Fuller wrote that "[o]nly the withdrawal of American and NATO boots on the ground will begin to allow the process of near-frantic emotions to subside within Pakistan, and for the region to start to cool down." Mr. Fuller believes Pakistan can handle its own Islamists under normal circumstances, but "U.S. policies have now driven local nationalism, xenophobia and Islamism to combined fever pitch."
For now, the U.S. government should confine itself to expressing severe regret at the assassination. For the longer run, we would do well to begin a serious reassessment of U.S. policies in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, with an eye to reducing our military footprint.