ISLAMABAD — The assassination of an outspoken secular politician by one of his police guards Tuesday plunged the Pakistani government deeper into political crisis and highlighted the threat of militant infiltration within the nation’s security forces.
The killing of Salman Taseer, the prominent governor of Punjab province, was another grim reminder of the risks that Pakistani leaders take to oppose religious extremists, at a time when the United States is pushing Pakistan for greater cooperation in the war in Afghanistan by cracking down on militant groups like the Taliban.
Taseer, a successful businessman and publisher of a liberal English-language daily newspaper, was exceptional, even within the secular-minded Pakistan Peoples Party, for his vocal opposition to the religious parties and the extremism they spread.
On Tuesday, Taseer was shot in daylight multiple times at close range as he was getting into his car in Islamabad at the Kohsar Market, an area frequently visited by the city’s elite. His attacker was identified as Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, an elite-force security guard, who surrendered to the police immediately afterward and implied he had killed the governor because of his campaign to amend the blasphemy laws.
It was not yet clear whether he had acted alone or on behalf of some extremist group.
Taseer’s death will serve as a chilling warning to any politician who speaks out against the religious parties and their agenda and will certainly end immediate attempts to amend the blasphemy laws, politicians said.
“It is a loss to progressive forces; he stood up for what he believed in,” said one of his party colleagues, Sherry Rehman, a legislator.
Obama administration officials worry that even if Pakistan’s government survives the upheaval — which they believe it might, for a while — the turmoil could kill any chance for political and economic reforms. The assassination, one official said, leaves not only the repeal of the blasphemy laws in doubt but also possible reforms to increase tax collection. Under pressure from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other U.S. officials, the Pakistani government submitted a new tax law in Parliament. But it may abandon the push as a way to lure back coalition partners.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview Tuesday that he was “hugely concerned” when he learned of the assassination, but that he expected Pakistan and its security relations with the United States to weather the crisis.