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Assassination, Political Turbulence Compound Pakistan’s Woes

January 5, 2011 at 5:43 PM EDT
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As Pakistan mourns the killing of a provincial governor and its governing coalition threatens to splinter, Afghanistan's neighbor faces a fresh set of political worries. Gwen Ifill talks to Moeed Yusuf of the U.S. Institute of Peace and Robert Grenier, former CIA station chief in Islamabad, for more.

GWEN IFILL: Now, for more on the upheaval in Pakistan, we turn to Moeed Yusuf, who manages the Pakistan Program at the United States Institute of Peace, and Robert Grenier, a career CIA officer who was station chief in Islamabad from 1999 to 2002. He’s now chairman of ERG Partners, a financial consulting company.

Mr. Yusuf, how significant was this assassination?

MOEED YUSUF, United States Institute of Peace: Very, very significant, I think not just for the political ramifications, but I think it really brings out the extent to which intolerance and extremism is now pervasive in the Pakistani society.

I mean, a person getting up, taking law into his own hands, and then being praised by hundreds is unheard of in a country which traditionally has been fairly moderate by standards of the Muslim world.

GWEN IFILL: Most aren’t familiar with Salman Taseer. Tell us about him.

MOEED YUSUF: A very buoyant, outspoken liberal, a long-term Pakistan People’s Party stalwart, started back in the ’70s as a student, and very clearly came out, took a position against the blasphemy law, not as much against the law itself, but the fact that it was being misused and thus it needed correction, which is what many others in the civil society have also said.

But his image as a liberal, as somebody who spoke out against the ultra-nationalists and the right-wingers, really cost him his life. But it’s a very, very sad tale for the Pakistani society.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Grenier, he’s also someone who had ties to the last significant Pakistani assassination. And that was against Benazir Bhutto and her father.

So, tell us how that connection — is that what has happened, that those blasphemy laws have become the example for what could get you targeted, or opposition to those blasphemy laws?

ROBERT GRENIER, former CIA official: Well, I think this just underscores the extent to which those are willing to stand up to the religious right are very much taking their lives into their own hands.

So, while Benazir Bhutto of course met a violent end, it was for somewhat different reasons. And yet it was very clear the very extreme religious right, if you will, that was responsible for her murder. And this is a message which has been clearly passed to others as well.

GWEN IFILL: The religious right that you refer to, do they have positions in government? Do they have that kind of political power? Or is it only — is their power exercised in moments like this, moments of kind of mayhem?

ROBERT GRENIER: Well, I think we have to be a little bit careful when we talk about the religious right in Pakistan.

I think the distinction between extremists and relative moderates in Pakistan really doesn’t accord with our own notions of extremism and relative moderation. I think what we’re seeing here is that even relative moderates, these 500 clerics who were mentioned, they are adherents of a relatively moderate religious movement in Pakistan referred to as the Barelvis.

They consider themselves to be somewhat moderate. They would clearly make a distinction between themselves and those who are currently using violence and terrorism to pursue their own agendas.

GWEN IFILL: Right. Yet, they applauded this assassination.

ROBERT GRENIER: Indeed they did.

And I think it just shows the extent to which the default position, if you will, in Pakistan has moved very sharply to the right and toward intolerance.

GWEN IFILL: President Zardari wasn’t at the funeral, even though he was close allies with this man. What does that mean about the current government? And is the current government in peril because of political reasons or because of social concerns like this one?

MOEED YUSUF: Well, I think he wasn’t at the funeral, frankly, because of security concerns. There was a tremendous amount of security concern around his and presence of other major leaders.

But as far as the political government is concerned, they are very, very challenged. The credibility is extremely low. With the coalition now breaking apart, they’re in a minority. So, technically, the opposition can oust the prime minister. I don’t think that will happen, but, again, for the wrong reason, which is that even the opposition doesn’t want to take control of the government at this point and face what is going to inevitably be a very, very tough 2011 for Pakistan.

GWEN IFILL: Does this — is this a tipping point of any kind, this assassination Salman Taseer for Zardari or for other people who want power in Pakistan?

ROBERT GRENIER: I think it places them under additional strain. And I think it makes it that much more difficult for them to speak out on critical issues of the country.

Pakistan is a society that is very much at war with itself. It’s a country that was founded as a refuge for Muslims. And they have never been able to develop a national consensus on what does that actually mean, what is the proper role of Islam in society.

There are many different currents in the country, but there are certain currents who are being clearly intimidated. And that’s not going to change.

GWEN IFILL: Is that something you agree with?

MOEED YUSUF: Absolutely.

I think Pakistan’s silent majority is the still moderate polity. But then these ultra-right-wingers have come out. They’re the vocal ones. They’re the ones who are creating mayhem. And so their nuisance value is much, much more than it should be.

I still have hope for the society, because I think the majority is still moderate. But the more these kind of events take place, the tougher it gets for that moderate part of the society to come out and speak against them.

GWEN IFILL: Well, the tougher it gets, I imagine, for outside interests, like the United States, to get things changed.

We have been weighing in on issues, on this blasphemy law, and also on taxation issues. Do those things now go off the table, or at least this outside influence in trying to make that kind of change get pushed off the table?

ROBERT GRENIER: Well, when we’re talking about the blasphemy laws and cultural norms, if you will, in Pakistan, those are something which we, as outsiders, really have very little influence over, and probably shouldn’t try to influence.

Obviously, we’re going to continue to be a voice for relative moderation. But, at the end much the day, these are things that really need to be sorted out within Pakistan society.

When we talk about other aspects of government policy, whether it’s economic policy or foreign policy, particularly vis-a-vis Afghanistan, there, we have a great deal more influence and a great deal more that we can say.

GWEN IFILL: And how much is our influence compromised when these sorts of things, which are unrelated, which we may not have a role in, when they happen?

MOEED YUSUF: Well, it is to a large extent.

The U.S. is the universal scapegoat, in some ways, when it comes to conspiracy theories in Pakistan. So, any time things like this happens, there is a bit of a shock.

But I think I completely agree that we shouldn’t involve ourselves in any domestic issue which has to deal with cultural norms or religion — foreign policy, yes, definitely, economic aid, yes, but not issues which are so sensitive, that even our visibility or attachment to it poisons it itself.

GWEN IFILL: We have heard talk of internal political turmoil as well. And that’s this no-confidence vote which may or may not be happening. Where does that stand tonight?

ROBERT GRENIER: Well, it — right now, the government is essentially under threat.

I personally don’t think that the opposition parties are going to move forward aggressively with a no-confidence vote. I don’t think that they really want to remove this government from power. They just want to see this government remain weak, so that they can maximize their own influence over government policy.

GWEN IFILL: If this government remains weak, what kind of an ally does it become or stay for the U.S.?

MOEED YUSUF: An unpredictable one.

I think this political crisis, they may be able to weather this one, but there will be another one down the road, because the government is weak. Governance is fairly weak. The credibility is low. And so it becomes that much tougher for this civilian government under threat to deliver on its commitment, on its promises, and actually do what is right for their own country.

GWEN IFILL: Moeed Yusuf and Robert Grenier, thank you both very much.

MOEED YUSUF: Pleasure.

ROBERT GRENIER: You’re very welcome.