There are two blatant puzzles associated with the shooting of 14 year old Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban in Pakistan Tuesday. The first is the motive: what benefit could any organization, especially one that eventually hopes to lead the Pakistani population, gain from killing a young girl? The second has to do with strategy. Why would any organization ever publicly take credit for the shooting, especially after observing the worldwide outrage that resulted? Yet that’s exactly what the Pakistani Taliban did when it proudly took responsibility for the act.
So today’s puzzle is this: why is the Taliban so intent on killing this little girl? And why have they been so brazen as to claim responsibility, going so far to say that they will not stop until she is dead? Could any single child be that important?
Answer to last week’s puzzler
Last week we asked why the governments of Libya and Egypt reacted so differently to the attacks on US diplomatic facilities in their respective countries. Commenter Scott Monje suggested that the US “appears to be much more popular in Libya than in Egypt,” encouraging the Libyan government to quickly apologize for the attack. Daniel Rio Tinto added that the Libyan government was more dependent on the US because it came to power “with the aid of NATO intervention” which made them “much more careful on how to engage with the US and the West as a whole.” Both are true. The real question, however, is why the US enjoys greater popularity in Tripoli than Cairo despite the substantial aid both countries receive from the US. I believe the answer has more to do with domestic politics than anything the US does or does not do.
Both the current regimes in Egypt and Libya are in the midsts of domestic power struggles: Egyptian President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are in a heated competition with the extreme but still popular Salafists for public support. In Libya the power struggle is much less severe, as it is between the newly elected president and legislature and the far less popular Al Qaida faction, but could still cause problems.
The govenrment in Libya had the luxury to quickly and immediately condemn the attacks because the perpetrators of the attacks — a wing of Al Qaida — are not popular in Libya and thus pose no threat to the regime. The attackers’ goal was not to undercut popular support for the existing regime — which they have no ability to do — but to convince the regime’s main supporter, the United States, to leave the country.
President Morsi is in an entirely different position. His Muslim Brotherhood won the most recent election, but faces a strong competitor from more extreme Salafists, who were behind the attacks in Egypt. The Salafists goal was not to convince the United States to leave — something that they will not be able to do — but to convince Egyptian voters that the Muslim Brotherhood is “in bed” with the US and thus not worthy of their support. Given this game, in the aftermath of the attack Morsi was in a difficult position. He could not immediately condemn the attackers and come out in support of the US, since this would signal to Egyptians where his allegiance lay. But he could not unequivocably support the attackers since the regime depends on continued US aid. Morsi, thus, behaved quite strategically when he initially condemned the video and its author, demanding an apology, but then a few days later quietly shut down further demonstrations.