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Pakistan heading in the wrong direction

  • Governor of Punjab province assassinated by his own security guard
  • Fareed Zakaria says it's a sign that progressive forces in Pakistan are on defensive
  • He says modernization of Pakistan is key to the U.S. strategy for the region
  • Pakistan is heading in the wrong direction politically, economically, he says

Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is an author and foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET Sundays and on CNN International at 2 and 10 p.m. Central European Time/ 5 p.m. Abu Dhabi/ 9 p.m. Hong Kong.

New York (CNN) -- The assassination of the governor of Pakistan's Punjab province is a major setback for progressive forces in that country and a deeply worrying sign for U.S. strategy in the region, says analyst Fareed Zakaria.

Salman Taseer was gunned down by his own security guard Tuesday, apparently as a result of the official's very public opposition to Pakistan's blasphemy law.

"To have this person assassinated by his own security guard is deeply unsettling and very damaging to the prospects for a modern Pakistan," Zakaria said in an interview. "And at the end of the day, America's strategy in the region hinges on Pakistan continuing to move on a path toward modernization."

Read Fareed Zakaria's column in TIME

In November, a Christian woman, Asia Bibi of Punjab province, was sentenced to death for blasphemy after a court convicted her of defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed during a 2009 argument with fellow Muslim field workers. An investigation by a Pakistani government ministry found the charges against Bibi stemmed from "religious and personal enmity" and recommended her release. The government also said it would review the law.

The author and host of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" spoke to CNN on Wednesday. Here is an edited transcript:

CNN: What are the implications of the assassination of the governor?

Zakaria: This is a huge event in Pakistan. First of all it's important to understand what Punjab is in Pakistan. Punjab is the most populous part of Pakistan, it is the most prosperous part of Pakistan, it's also the heart and soul of Pakistan's governing class. The officer corps of Pakistan's military is largely Punjabi, there are some accounts that suggest as much as 80% of the officers corps comes from Punjab.

This man, Salman Taseer, was probably the most prominent liberal or progressive politician in Pakistan today. He was a very close ally of Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani politician who was assassinated three years ago. He was a very powerful man in his own right and was famous as a crusading liberal -- in particular against the forces of extremism and militant Islam.

CNN: Has the reaction to the assassination generated any hope that it could galvanize the liberal forces?

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Zakaria: Not really. The funeral was attended by the prime minister, but President Asif Ali Zardari did not attend, which was surprising, given that Taseer was one of his closest supporters and colleagues. The two most powerful political figures in Punjab, the Sharif brothers, who run the largest opposition party to the government, also did not attend. And that's significant because it suggests that on the crucial issue of his opposition to religious extremism and the specific issue of his opposition to a blasphemy law, people do not believe that his assassination will strengthen the cause of modernization and help repeal the blasphemy law.

On the contrary it suggests that people feel he is politically too controversial for them to even attend his funeral. You would have thought his death would martyr him to this cause and the cause would grow in strength. But the initial reaction of the political parties seems to be to have become more scared. I have not heard any outpouring of support for the cause for which he died, which is also deeply disturbing.

CNN: Has the blasphemy law been a real factor in shaping how Pakistan is governed?

Zakaria: The blasphemy law is somewhat symbolic more than it has had a practical impact, but it's a powerful symbol because the blasphemy law basically says it's a capital offense, that it is punishable by death, if you insult Islam. That's a very vague formulation which allows almost any interpretation. It has been used against Christians and minorities in a completely arbitrary way.

Taseer was actually very strongly critical of the law, and publicly supported the appeal of a young Christian woman against whom it had been used and who was sentenced to death under it. So it is a symbol of whether Pakistan can confront the forces of religious extremism, which are not merely hidden in mountains in North Waziristan, but are in the parliament, in the political system, and actively support laws effectively saying they will kill anyone they regard as even saying something that they deem to be disrespectful of Islam. It is a symbol, but it's a very powerful symbol of which path Pakistan is on.

CNN: Why is this of concern to the United States?

Zakaria: For the United States, this issue is actually at the center of whether or not it will be able to succeed in Afghanistan. Let's remember, the strategy in Afghanistan cannot succeed as long as there are sanctuaries for the Taliban and al Qaeda in neighboring Pakistan.

Right now what happens is the Taliban crosses the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan, regroups, gains support, logistics, resources in Pakistan, and then comes back to fight the U.S. forces or Afghan government forces. This has been the key to their ability to survive and thrive, so unless you can deal with the sanctuaries in Pakistan, you're not going to make any headway in Afghanistan.

The entire leadership of al Qaeda and the leadership of the worst elements of the Taliban are all in Pakistan now. In order to deal with that, to destroy those terrorist groups, the Pakistani army has to be willing to go into the areas where these various groups have their strongholds, mostly in a part of Pakistan called North Waziristan.

So far, the Pakistani army has refused to do so. The most important reason is that they fear a backlash within Pakistan. They're too nervous about the political consequences of having this frontal struggle against Islamic extremism. So if you can't confront Islamic extremism with things like the blasphemy law, what hope is there that they actually go ahead and mount large-scale military operations in North Waziristan?

CNN: Has the U.S. stepped up its military operations on the border?

Zakaria: The U.S. has mostly been involved with the acquiescence of the Pakistani army. I think that the U.S. has got to be frustrated at the lack of progress in Pakistan. In the president's review of Afghanistan-Pakistan situation, it was absolutely clear that that was the one area in which there was very limited progress.

But the reality is that the United States cannot unilaterally expand its military operations in Pakistan. It's a sovereign country. This is not a marginal country. This is a country with over 175 million people and 18 nuclear weapons, stretching over vast mountainous terrain. The U.S. can only do things in Pakistan with the active support of the Pakistani government. This is what makes the dilemma so difficult. ... the Pakistani government seems both unwilling and unable to take on the struggle against extremism.

CNN: Is the government in danger of falling?

Zakaria: The civilian government might fall, which would certainly have the effect of creating a more general instability. But the reality is that Pakistan, particularly on national security issues, is run by the military and the military remains firmly in control.

The whole thing highlights how the central problem in the U.S. Afghanistan strategy is Pakistan. ... Trends in Pakistan are not getting better, not politically, not religiously, not economically. They're all heading in the wrong direction.