It’s a country that plays a central role in fighting the war on terror even as the world’s most feared terrorism network calls it home. A place that’s embroiled in internal conflict over notions of democracy, modernity and the role of Islam in society.
The Pakistan where former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated Thursday is a nation with a complex history and an uneasy relationship with the world community — and, often, with its own people.
Here’s some of what you need to know to understand the confusing circumstances surrounding the attack on a Bhutto campaign rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
Pakistan is one of the most important U.S. allies in the fight against al-Qaida and other extremists, including the Taliban.
It also may well be the country where Osama bin Laden spent most of his time in hiding since Sept. 11, 2001.
The presence of al-Qaida militants in the country’s northwest is, of course, the very reason Pakistan is so important to the war on terror — breaking up a terrorism network centered in the lawless, mountainous region near the Afghan border would likely be impossible without Pakistan’s cooperation.
Pakistan’s army frequently clashes with Islamic militants in northern parts of the country, where the militants have been blamed for numerous suicide bombings and other attacks. But the country’s intelligence agency also has supported Islamic radicals in Pakistan and the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan in an effort to gain political influence in both countries.
On Thursday, President Pervez Musharraf blamed Islamic extremists for Bhutto’s assassination and said he would redouble his efforts to fight them.
Nearly all of Pakistan’s 160 million people are Muslims. And a bitter conflict swirls around exactly what role Islam will play in how the nation is ruled.
Pakistan has generally been ruled by secular leaders, including Musharraf. But the Islamic religious right shot to prominence after Musharraf’s rise to power in a 1999 military coup — and was further boosted by a wave of anti-American sentiment after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Islamic parties gained new influence after winning dozens of seats in parliamentary elections in 2002.
Ever since, emboldened religious groups have been pushing for Islamic law, which dictates everything from women’s clothing and participation in sports to how rape prosecutions are pursued. They’ve fought to enforce such rules on the local level and tried to pressure the national government to institute Islamic law more broadly.
Musharraf argues that Pakistan’s security and prosperity demand forceful actions against terrorist groups and Islamic extremists.
His critics’ response: At what cost to democracy?
Musharraf recently declared six weeks of emergency rule, which he said was necessary to combat rising Islamic extremism. But many saw the move as an effort to prolong his presidency — specifically, to try to control the results of parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8.
The state of emergency ended on Dec. 15, but observers remained doubtful that the elections would be free and fair.
Under emergency rule, police cracked down on rallies by opposition parties. And Bhutto and fellow former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — the leading opposition figures — only recently returned to campaign after extended periods in exile.
Musharraf also rounded up thousands of his opponents and fired Supreme Court justices, replacing them with his hand-picked successors. The government has also been accused of clamping down on the media.
With Bhutto’s assassination — and Sharif’s announcement Thursday that his party would boycott the Jan. 8 elections — the future of democracy in Pakistan has become even more uncertain.
In 1948, mere months after India and Pakistan both gained their independence from Britain, the two young nations went to war over the divided region of Kashmir — a conflict that’s continued to this day, fluctuating between a war of words and all-out fighting in the border region.
Tensions between the countries escalated — and the world watched nervously — when India and Pakistan tested nuclear bombs in 1998.
India and Pakistan reached a breakthrough in 2003, declaring a cease-fire in Kashmir. An ongoing peace process between the countries has lessened global concerns about the nuclear situation — though Pakistan is still seen as a prime target for terrorists trying to get their hands on nuclear weapons.
Here are some of Pakistan’s key political figures:
- Pervez Musharraf: The former army chief has ruled Pakistan since leading a 1999 coup.
- Benazir Bhutto: The two-time former prime minister led Pakistan’s biggest opposition party before her assassination Thursday.
- Nawaz Sharif: The premier ousted in Musharraf’s coup is among Pakistan’s most popular leaders.
- Qazi Hussain Ahmed: The leader of Pakistan’s main Islamist party and a critic of Musharraf’s role in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
- Fazlur Rehman: The head of a pro-Taliban party with strong support among the ethnic Pashtuns living along the Afghan border.
- Imran Khan: A former star cricket player who used his fame to elbow his way into Pakistan’s political elite. An eloquent and outspoken critic of Musharraf.