Precarious Pakistan: A bloody day highlights the nation's sectarian strife

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Another good reason for the United States to get out of Afghanistan sooner than later is that neighboring Pakistan, upon which America depends to operate in the region, is coming apart.

The latest man-made catastrophe in Pakistan occurred Thursday. At least 120 were killed in a series of bombings by Sunni extremists against the Shiite minority. It was the country's deadliest day of violence in five years and it may jeopardize the elections that are scheduled to be held before June.

The root causes of the strains there include a schism between a corrupt elected civilian government headed by Asif Ali Zardari, widower of assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and the military. Mr. Zardari has a checkered background which includes imprisonment on corruption charges.

The military, in a strong position economically and politically since the birth of the country in 1947, has been poised to seize control throughout Pakistan's history whenever it can maintain credibly that the future is at risk. It is certainly ready at this point to assume the reins of power. A military coup d'etat would present substantial political problems for a United States that wished to continue to work with a government there.

A second problem is sectarian strife among the various types of Muslims that make up 97 percent of the population. Sunnis are the majority and Shiites the minority, the latter group largely found among the Hazara, many of whom are also in Afghanistan. The recent attacks in Quetta, Pakistan, were against Shiite Hazara and appear to have been carried out by an extreme Sunni group, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, one of Pakistan's numerous militias. The Lashkar are not new, but Pakistani armed forces have never been able or willing to extirpate them, in spite of their terrorist actions.

A third problem is Pakistan's relationship with the United States. It has received mountains of U.S. military and other aid during the Afghanistan war, starting in 2001. Its wealthy class has also made huge profits from U.S. activities in Afghanistan through the transport of fuel, weapons, ammunition, food and other supplies from the Pakistan port of Karachi. America also continues to carry out drone attacks in Pakistan to the fury of many there. The most recent of these happened Thursday, when alleged Taliban and an unknown number of other Pakistanis were killed.

President Barack Obama should take Pakistan into account as he pulls U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and decides how many, if any, should be left behind. The U.S. situation there is the equivalent of sitting on a time bomb.

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