Why Salmaan Taseer Matters

Salmaan Taseer was no angel. Like you and I, he had his shortcomings. He was human.

Unlike many prominent Pakistanis, Taseer had the courage and moral sensibility to stand up for a vulnerable woman accused of an act of blasphemy she probably did not commit. Salmaan Taseer rose up in defense of Asiya Bibi, a Christian woman, because he was human.

The late governor of Punjab was killed by a man claiming to act in God’s Name. His murderer and those who condone the wretched act allege that Taseer blasphemed by criticizing the laws that put Asiya Bibi on death row as a “black law.” But Taseer’s comments were focused on man-made legislation claiming to adhere to Islam. This legislation was added to Pakistan’s Penal Code by a military ruler, Zia-ul-Haq, during the 1980s. Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws besmirch the religion they seek to protect. They create an environment of persecution, not tolerance, where Christians involved in property disputes can be easily taken out of the picture with a simple accusation of disparaging Islam.

Salmaan Taseer did the right thing. Sadly, instead of being lionized, he was reviled. Many in Pakistan celebrated his death or condoned his assassination. Others were afraid to publicly condemn his murder in unequivocal terms.

The tragedy that unfolded one year ago in Islamabad was not simply that Taseer was barbarically killed by a madman. The tragedy was also that millions of ordinary people indulged in the same self-righteous lunacy as the madman.

As outsiders peered into Pakistan during those January days, many must have wondered whether this country of 180 million was not a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims, but an insane asylum for them, penned in between the Hindu Kush and the western edges of the Thar Desert. That Pakistan is now a metaphor used to describe a country that has fallen to antediluvian marauders is something Pakistanis should not dismiss defensively; they should take it as a valuable appraisal of what their homeland has become.

Pakistan will be a safer home for its citizens when Salmaan Taseer is recognized as a hero within and his murderer as a shameless fanatic; when its weakest have strong advocates among the powerful; and when it realizes for itself the tolerance and respect for human rights it expects of others, particularly the West.

How Pakistanis perceive Salmaan Taseer is a litmus test for the country’s collective soul. For how human it is.

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The bin Laden aftermath: Pakistan caught in a web of lies

My latest post at ForeignPolicy.com discusses the impact of the killing of Osama bin Laden on the Pakistani civilian and military leadership. Read it here.

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Osama bin Laden Dead

US news sources report that al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden has been killed in a “human operation” in a mansion outside of Islamabad. Big news. Too early to discuss implications. But the big question is: Did the US get him unilaterally or did the Pakistani government help?

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Main Tou Daikhoon Ga (Strings)

Strings, one of Pakistan’s most popular rock music bands, has a new song and video out, “Main Tou Daikhoon Ga” (I Will See), with a positive, uplifting message.

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Music Video: Doob Gaya Hain (Laal)

Laal, Pakistan’s most well-known socially and politically conscious band today, has a new single and music video out to highlight the plight of the country’s millions of flood victims. An English translation is below.

If you have not yet contributed to Pakistan flood relief aid, two excellent organizations are Mercy Corps (via Relief4Pakistan) [link] and Islamic Relief [link].


My house with its earthen courtyard, my sanctuary

My lifeline of support, my home village

The shadows of my every memory, and every moment, are here.

My blood, my sweat, my death and life are all here.

(But now) Everything has drowned, Everything has drowned

If you were in my stead?

You’d have no option but to voice your pain.

If you were in my stead?

You’d have no option but to spread your hands to beg.

Everything has drowned, Everything has drowned

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With Baitullah Dead, Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan Down but Not Out

Baitullah Mehsud is dead. Really dead. Blubber boy was taken out by a kid in Nevada with a joystick. Good stuff.

The Mehsud network has been weakened by a combination of Pakistani military operations, an aggressive propaganda campaign, and U.S. drone attacks. Its strategic space has been remarkably narrowed, despite newly restored alliances with neighboring militant groups, such as the Hafiz Gul Bahadur network. But the Mehsud group will survive this serious blow and it remains determined to prove its relevancy. Toward this, it will have to select a new leader. Hakimullah Mehsud is one of the probable candidates. While Hakimullah has the charisma and management skills of Baitullah, it’s unclear as to whether the operations in the Khyber-Orakzai area can continue with Hakimullah in South Waziristan, where he’ll have to be based if he wants to lead the TTP. Stepping into Baitullah’s shoes will be a tough task. He was a thug par excellence, taking out militants who were virtually identical to him ideologically, but also competitors over contested turf. Baitullah’s strength stemmed not only from his capacity to inflict damage on Pakistani security forces and civilians, but also from his ability to be the last man standing in intra-militant ‘death matches’. But he who lives by the gun, dies by the gun. And so Baitullah died by causes that were quite natural given his violent way of life.

In addition to choosing a new leader, the Baitullah network will likely try to pull off a forceful attack in the NWFP or deeper into Pakistan. The message would be, ‘This battle continues after Baitullah’. Baitullah’s network, the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan, needs to maintain a sense of coherency. And Baitullah offered that — quite brutally. It will be tough to maintain cohesion without a clear, proven leader. Baitullah achieved his status both steadily and through ‘fantastic’ attacks. He built an aura or myth around him that young, wayward boys and men in the Pashtun belt became enamored with.

The timing of Baitullah’s killing is key. His “jihad” in Pakistan has backfired considerably this year. At the same time, the Afghan Taliban’s counter-surge in Afghanistan is doing reasonably well. So is this a time for internal debate in the Pakistani Taliban camp, questioning the utility of investing energy in Pakistan? Will they seek a peace deal with Rawalpindi?

What about Washington? Given that it has scratched Rawalpindi’s back, what does it expect in return? Cooperation against the Jalaluddin-Sirajuddin Haqqani network and Mullah Omar’s Taliban? Is that something Rawalpindi is able and willing to offer, if it hasn’t already?

And now that Langley has taken out Mehsud, which Pakistanis allege was avoided on at least two occasions before (interestingly, US officials after almost two years of silence countered off the record in a Time magazine report that retired Pakistani security officers were aiding Mehsud), will the Pakistani public warm up to the drone attacks? After all, the United States has taken out Pakistan’s greatest tormentor in recent years — a man who is responsible for the murder of over 3,000 Pakistanis and, possibly, of its former prime minister, the late Benazir Bhutto.

My expectation is that any change in the Pakistani security establishment and public will be partial, but not a game changer. Mistrust between the U.S. and Pakistani security establishments seems to be higher than ever. And recently hardened militants could be softened up by a changed calculus. Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who has continued his suicide attacks against the Pakistan military, could be amenable to a ceasefire with Rawalpindi, which would be especially interested if he’s willing to redirect his resources westward. Alternatively, Rawalpindi could cooperate in weakening the Haqqani network and its North-South Waziristan partners, if it has estimated these entities are irreversibly hostile and — due to Baitullah’s death — vulnerable. But the probability of Rawalpindi going against Mullah Omar’s Taliban is close to nil. Without the latter, the Pakistani security establishment has almost no cards to play in Afghanistan. It will have lost in a great game that has only really started.

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Great News

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Good News

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Meeting Mr. Kurd

Departing Quetta today, on my flight was none other than Ali Ahmed Kurd, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association and firebrand lawyers’ movement leader.

He was sitting two seats ahead of me, but was later escorted to the cockpit, where he stayed till the end of the flight.  It was the pilot and flight staff’s way of honoring him.

After disembarking the plane, I managed to speak with him for a few minutes.  He spent most of the time denying that he’s anyone of significance.  He’s a very cool guy.  I got an upclose look at that wild mane of hair.

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Terrorists Target the ISI in Lahore

Terrorists struck an office of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and a police station in central Lahore this morning, killing at least 22 persons and injuring over 200.  At least thirteen of the dead are police officers, reports GEO News.

Reports of the attacks’ details are conflicting.  Several officials have described the attack as a suicide bombing.  But according to Dawn, the attack was a hybrid operation consisting of an armed attack by four gunmen and a subsequent detonation of a car bomb, which GEO News reports was 100 kilograms.  The terrorists seem to have been unable to penetrate the ISI facility, but managed to level a nearby building.

According to GEO News, Punjab police have seized at least two grenades and a suicide jacket, which suggests the four attackers sought to inflict maximum damage and then kill themselves to avoid capture.

Punjab police have arrested four suspects, presumably the aforementioned armed attackers.  Television broadcasts showed the faces of two of the suspects, both of whom were struck by bystanders as they were brought by security officers to police vehicles.  One suspect was hit in the head repeatedly by an onlooker using a motorcycle helmet.  Police had to push back several bystanders from attacking the arrested terrorists.

One of the attackers resembled the scruffy Afghan arrested in the March attack on the Manawan police training center.  The other apprehended attacker appeared to be a middle class person, possibly an Arab or an Afghan.  He was speaking while police rushed him to a vehicle and exuded a striking level of confidence, except for when he was being beaten by angered Lahoris.

Several Pakistani commentators — including Mehmood Shah, the former chief secretary of the North-West Frontier Province, Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Abdul Qayyum, and Munawar Hassan, amir of Jamaat-i Islami – have blamed India for playing some role in the attacks.

But a more likely suspect is Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan, against whom military operations have begun.  Mehsud has spearheaded a series of increasingly complex terrorist attacks in Lahore this year, consisting of hybrid teams and tactics.  Teams consist of Pashtuns from Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as the so-called Punjabi Taliban from Pakistan’s Seraiki belt.

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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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Arif Rafiq regularly appears on the John Batchelor Show Friday nights from 09:30-10:00pm Eastern Time. Tune your dial to 770AM in New York or 630AM in DC. The show appears on affiliates in other cities. Listen live online at WABCRadio.com.
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