The assassination of Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistan’s largest province—and the wave of support for the assassin from Islamic extremists—underscores how close to the abyss the world’s second largest Muslim country has come. Taseer was an outspoken critic of religious extremism and a defender of civilian government. Like Benazir Bhutto, he was murdered by the dark forces in Pakistan that seek to create an Islamic emirate.
In the wake of this disaster, many will be tempted to go to the generals and look for a strongman, perhaps army chief of staff General Kayani, to maintain order. America has done that in Pakistan four times before. But that is why we are staring into the abyss today: The generals nurtured the jihadists for decades, especially under President Zia ul-Haq, and even now their intelligence service, the ISI, supports many extremists at the same time as it is fighting against others.
Rather than turn to the generals, we must stand by the democratically elected civilian government, despite its many faults (and there are many indeed). We should remain invested in the democratic process and the rule of law, which is what Pakistanis demanded only three years ago when they peacefully toppled another dictator, General Musharraf, despite the Bush administration’s desperate efforts to keep him in power.
The stakes are enormous. Pakistan has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world and is home to more terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba than any other country. On virtually every global issue that matters to Americans in the twenty-first century—from terror to proliferation to nuclear war to the future of the global jihad—Pakistan is the crucial nation, and the place where all those issues collide in a uniquely combustible fashion.
This year, President Obama must focus like a laser on Pakistan. He has already promised to travel to the country in 2011. He will need to bring tangible benefits in the form of reduced tariffs on trade, helicopters to fight insurgents, and the promise of constancy and consistency in our strategic dialogue. He will need to draw red lines about ending the Pakistani army’s ties to terrorism. And he will need to signal our determination to (subtly) help broker a rapprochement between India and Pakistan, with the aid of key players such as Saudi Arabia and China, to remove the rationale for extremism in Pakistan and undermine the Afghan Taliban’s justification for jihad.
But above all, he will need to bring with him the conviction that America supports Pakistani democracy, and that we will help Pakistan normalize its place in South Asia. Benazir said it best: Democracy is the best antidote to extremism. And peace, engagement and trade with India would strengthen the advocates of democracy by ending Pakistan's obsession with its rival. That is the big idea that the United States can promote—a free and democratic Pakistan at peace with itself and with its neighbors. It would be good for Pakistan, for India, and for America.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. His latest book is Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad.