January 12, 2011 5:32 pm

Biden warns Pakistan on extremist threat

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Joseph Biden, US vice-president, has urged Pakistan to fight religious extremism, reflecting international concern over the degree of public sympathy shown for the killer of a liberal politician.

Mr Biden was speaking during a visit to Islamabad, where the ruling party is reeling from the loss of Salman Taseer, a provincial governor shot dead by a bodyguard angered by his opposition to blasphemy laws.

The murder has exposed the depth of religious conservatism in Pakistan at a time when Washington is increasing aid to try to overcome widespread anti-US sentiment and rally the country behind its Afghan strategy.

“The governor was killed simply because he was a voice of tolerance and understanding,” Mr Biden told a news conference on Wednesday. “As you know all too well ... societies that tolerate such actions end up being consumed by those actions.”

The vice-president is the latest senior Obama administration official to visit Islamabad in attempts to encourage Pakistan to take tougher action against Afghan militants sheltering in its border region.

There are concerns that Pakistan’s fragile civilian government risks being overwhelmed by the country’s deepening political woes and an economic crisis exacerbated by the aftermath of floods in August.

In a reminder of the threat posed by Islamist militants, police said a suicide bomber killed 17 paramilitary soldiers and policemen when he rammed his explosive-laden vehicle into a mosque in north-west Pakistan on Wednesday.

The ruling coalition of Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s president, is battling to shore up its authority after being pushed near to collapse after trying to improve state finances by raising fuel prices.

The government salvaged its parliamentary majority after bowing to pressure from a coalition partner to reverse the fuel price increase, but the U-turn could threaten further loans from the IMF.

Mr Zardari is due to attend a memorial service for Richard Holbrooke, the late US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Washington on Friday, but analysts say his government may be more preoccupied with its domestic dilemmas than serving US security goals.

“The Americans want Pakistan to take certain actions, but the embattled government in Islamabad may not be able to act,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a commentator on political and security affairs.

The Obama administration sees the Pakistan military’s sheltering of Afghan militants as a big hurdle to its troop surge strategy in Afghanistan. Mr Biden said during a two-day trip to Afghanistan this week that success would require greater pressure on the Taliban from Pakistan.

Washington fears that the ability of Taliban fighters to slip back into Pakistan will blunt the impact of advances made by US troops into Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan. In a reminder of the precarious security situation in much of Afghanistan, at least two people were killed in Kabul on Wednesday when a suicide bomber attacked a busload of employees of the national intelligence service.

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