Courtesy of defense analyst and businessman Harlan Ullman and his wife, I had the opportunity to meet and talk extensively with Pakistan Punjab Province Governor Salman Taseer at their Georgetown home on May 17th this past year.
The intimate reception was comprised mostly of senior level Department of Defense and Department of State officials. Joint Chiefs of Staff Commander Mike Mullen was slated to attend but not sure he got there before I had to depart. Others in attendance included Sunday Times of London Washington Bureau Chief Christina Lamb, CSIS Senior Adviser and former Newsweek senior foreign correspondent Arnaud de Borchgrave, Woman’s National Democratic Club President Nucchi Currier, and others.
What struck me at the time was Governor Taseer’s intensity about policy and his annoyance with the trivial. The reception was high-powered and honoring his wife and him, but he wasn’t into small chat as he felt some in there were. Knowing little about the Punjab region, and sensing his discomfort, I took his lead and asked him to give me an ethno-political tour of his region and Pakistan and to give me a read on Zardari, Sharif, Kayani, and the ISI.
I hadn’t briefed up on who the Governor really was before accepting Ullman’s invitation (Ullman was also responsible for introducing me to Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari as well) — but after a few minutes with Taseer, not through bravado but rather his acute and granular understanding of Pakistan’s political order, I realized he was one of the country’s major power brokers. Some describe him as both the left and right hands of President Zardari’s liberalization efforts in the country. Governor Taseer spent quite a long time describing for me the country’s key political actors and from where they drew their fuel.
In his private conversation at the time, he made no bones about disliking Nawaz Sharif and his followers who he viewed as both corrupt and incompetent. Although I’m unfamiliar with the governance structure in Punjab, he basically had to share power and the stage too frequently with a Sharif-affiliated official.
Taseer also talked a lot about Pakistan’s youth, the dearth of options for them, and the growing problem if Islamic fanaticism — prescient given the alleged reason his executioner used to kill him. He thought America’s engagement in the region, while necessary, was often counter-productive, clunky, too high profile and arrogant.
I don’t have much more to say about Taseer other than that in the hour I encountered him and during the very intense conversation we had — so intense that Arnaud de Borchgrave jokingly said that I was “beyond” already what would normally be considered monopolizing Salman Taseer’s time. Arnaud, however, did exactly what I did and asked the man a substantive rather than superfluous set of questions — and one could see Taseer immediately start launching richly detailed political analyses of what was happening inside Pakistan.
His was a big personality. I recalled at the time how much his style and appreciation for the nuances of power reminded me of Richard Holbrooke.
Christopher Hitchens and I have numerous differences but are friends, and I respect him. I was often uncomfortable when I’d appear on a TV show with him and he’d rail against Islam, which I won’t do. What made Hitchens more understandable is that he saw religious fundamentalism of any kind as one of the world’s great evils — and whether it is a Punjab Governor being assassinated or Egyptian Coptics being slaughtered in their place of worship or a US General framing America’s conflicts in terms of battles between “their god” and “our god”, this kind of murderous fever that wipes out innocents and pragmatists should worry everyone.
This paragraph in this morning’s AfPak Channel daily brief on the assassination is chilling:
Salmaan Taseer, the outspoken PPP governor of Punjab who was assassinated yesterday in Islamabad by a 26 year old member of his elite security detail named Mumtaz Qadri in an apparent protest against Taseer’s liberal views on Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, was buried today in Lahore amid tightened security. Qadri, who is said to have told his fellow guards about his plan to kill Taseer ahead of time and asked them not to shoot so he could be taken alive, reportedly told photographers as he was led away that he was proud to have shot a “blasphemer”. The governor was reportedly shot more than two dozen times in the back with rounds from a Kalashnikov rifle, and hospital officials said they recovered 26 bullets from his body. An investigation is underway to determine how Qadri, who had previously been flagged in Rawalpindi as a potential security risk, was assigned to Taseer’s detail.
I didn’t know Taseer well — but I did have a very memorable encounter with him and his thinking — and think that Pakistan and America’s position in the region just lost even more ground with his assassination.
My condolences to the Ullmans who were his friends, Pakistan Ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani, and to Governor Taseer’s family and constituents.
– Steve Clemons