Can Pakistan rid itself of religious fanaticism?

This week, Joe Biden will make his most important foreign trip since he became vice president. He will visit Pakistan, a country that is in crisis at every level — military, political, economic and societal.

Pakistan has long been troubled, but last week’s assassination of Salman Taseer, the country’s most courageous liberal politician, has shone a new and harsh light on those troubles. I had always believed that ultimately, Pakistan’s governing elite was in charge, its military would not allow the country to crumble, and its nuclear arsenal was safe. After last week, I am not so sure.

The most frightening aspect of Taseer’s assassination was that it was carried out by one of his bodyguards, who belonged to an elite unit of the Punjab police trained specifically to fight terrorists. Mumtaz Qadri told his colleagues that he was going to gun down the governor. Not one of them stopped him or informed anyone. The other guards watched as Qadri riddled Taseer’s body with more than 20 bullets and then calmly put down his gun. Reports have emerged that Qadri’s extremist views were known by his superiors and had been reported to higher authorities, but he remained in his job.

It was not the first attack to support the conclusion that jihadists are infiltrating Pakistan’s military, whose long-standing support for militant Islam has created a Frankenstein’s monster. When Pervez Musharraf was president, he survived two assassination attempts by army and air force officers. One of them, Ilyas Kashmiri, a former army commando who has become an al-Qaeda operative, is thought by U.S. intelligence to be as deadly a terrorist leader as Osama bin Laden. In 2007, a Pakistani army officer carried out a suicide bombing against the Pakistani army’s elite Special Services Group.

Just as troubling is that in the wake of the assassination, Pakistan’s liberals and moderates have been silent and scared. Taseer’s only ally in parliament, Sherry Rehman, has gone underground. While mullahs, politicians and even some journalists openly declare that Taseer’s murder was justified because of his liberal views, few speak out in support of him. That is the dilemma of Pakistan’s society: Islamic extremist parties have never gotten more than a few percent of the public’s votes, yet elites bow to the bigots. Taseer was a charismatic and popular politician. His enemies were unelected thugs. He had the votes, but they had the guns. Ever since the 1970s, when then-dictator Muhammad Zia ul-Haq decided that the military gained credibility by allying with Islamic radicals, the country’s political institutions have been deeply compromised by extremism.

And there is the challenge for Biden. He must tell Pakistan’s rulers that this is their moment of truth. They have to go on the offensive and rid their country of the cancer of religious fanaticism. Biden should make clear that the United States supports the democratically elected government, those who urge moderation and peace and those who are willing to fight terrorism. American influence in Islamabad is considerable and played a constructive role in shoring up support for the civilian government last week.

Pakistan’s generals protest that they are fighting terrorists and that the best proof is that they are taking casualties. True. At the highest levels, the military understands that it has to fight Islamic militants. But it continues to try to make distinctions among the terrorists, wavers in its determination and remains obsessed with gaining strategic depth abroad — while its country is going up in flames.

Consider the Afghan Taliban, whose leadership is entirely in the North Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan. The Pakistani army has refused to attack any groups associated with it, claiming to be stretched thin. In fact, Pakistan’s generals still believe that the only way to have influence in Afghanistan is through the Taliban, with which they have had a 20-year partnership.

If Pakistan cannot reverse its downward spiral, the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is doomed. As long as the Taliban and al-Qaeda remain secure and supported in their sanctuaries in Pakistan, progress in Afghanistan will always be temporary. The Taliban could easily withdraw into its Pakistani bases, allow U.S. troops to draw down later this year and then return, rested and rearmed, to renew the battle against the Kabul government. At that point, the United States will face the choice of being forced into another “surge” or continuing the drawdown in the face of a rising Taliban.

comments@fareedzakaria.com

comments@fareedzakaria.com

Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Post. He is also the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and a contributing editor for The Atlantic.

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