Pakistan, Iraq See Uptick In Suicide Bombings

To try to understand what's behind the rise in gruesome attacks, Steve Inskeep talks to Vali Nasr, who is the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has served as a senior adviser to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On a Monday morning, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. The siege of a Kenyan shopping mall was one of several spectacular acts of violence over the weekend. Each act only highlighted a long-running conflict that has continued for years somewhere off in our peripheral vision.

GREENE: The Somali group Al-Shabab claims responsibility for the attack on a mall in Kenya. Gunshots and explosions continued there today, on the third day of the siege.

INSKEEP: An attack on a Shiite Muslim funeral in Iraq killed more than 100 people.]>

INSKEEP: Vali Nasr is the author of several books on the region and on U.S. foreign policy, including "The Dispensable Nation." He's in our studios once again. Welcome back to the program, Vali.

VALI NASR: Thank you.

INSKEEP: OK. So there's a small Christian minority in Pakistan. I understand they're targeted, they're discriminated against. But why would there be a mass attack like this?

NASR: Well, they're part of the minorities in Pakistan that the extremists are trying to eliminate, or put in a position of subservience. And there have been issues regarding Christians, including assassination of a minister of religious affairs who was a Christian, including application of the very controversial blasphemy laws against Christians. Often, they're targeted for that kind of pressure of imposition of religious law ;and also, potentially because they were a softer target this time around. There have been so many attacks on other minorities that may be better protected, security-wise, than this particular Christian church was.

INSKEEP: A lot of the minorities who are targeted in Pakistan are actually Muslims, right? Or would describe themselves that way.

NASR: Yes. They are either from the Ahmadiyya sect, or they are Shiites. But there are also other minorities in Pakistan, some belonging to pre-Islamic forms of practice but also, there is about 1 or 2 million Christians; and there's also significant Hindu and Parsi or Zoroastrian minority in Pakistan as well.

INSKEEP: OK. So this attack took place in Peshawar. This is northwestern Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan - the heartland of a war, a long-running war, against the Pakistan Taliban. And there's a new government in Pakistan, which has said it wants to make peace with the militants. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif - how's he doing?

NASR: Nawaz Sharif is doing fairly well domestically, in terms of tackling the economy. He's also doing better on foreign policy than mending fences with the United States. But the biggest challenge he has is how to wind down this civil war in Pakistan's northwest; and to stop the massive attack on civilian targets in Pakistan that makes stabilization of the economy, and normalization of life, very difficult.

INSKEEP: If militants stage an attack like this one - on a church - are they basically saying they're not interested in peace right now?

NASR: I think - there is a war going on there, and the militants constantly want to take the war to the civilians in Pakistan. They want to destabilize the state, and they want to create these wedge issues around Islam by targeting the minorities. So, you know, basically by doing these acts, the militants are stating that they're still there, they're still powerful, they can still destabilize the state.

I mean, take the case of this attack on the church. It's led to riots in the streets. It's led to three days of mourning in Pakistan. It has damaged Pakistan's international image. It's going to make life - for the government of Pakistan and the military - more difficult.

INSKEEP: Wouldn't Prime Minister Sharif say, at some point, well, we have to actually try to destroy you because it's not a moment for peace?

NASR: Well, they've been trying to destroy them for the past five years, and they have made only so much headway. So one other option, which is popular with a large segment of Pakistani public, is to find a way to stop the killing.

INSKEEP: We've just got about 30 seconds here, Vali Nasr, but Pakistan has also released Mullah Baradar. He's a major figure in the Afghan Taliban. Why would they let him go?

NASR: Pakistan has always wanted reconciliation, a deal with the Afghan Taliban. They always wanted to do this directly with Afghanistan. Now that U.S. is not paying much attention to Afghanistan, Pakistan sees an opportunity to woo the Afghans, to deal with them directly on this issue.

INSKEEP: He's a guy who could help them make peace with the Afghan Taliban, they think.

NASR: Well, supposedly.

INSKEEP: Or give them influence, anyway.

NASR: Well, that's what the Afghans think and therefore, the Pakistanis are offering this olive branch to start the process.

INSKEEP: Vali Nasr, thanks very much.

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