The new year began with distraught Pakistanis rampaging through key cities in the week following the assassination and burial of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The rioters ransacked banks, waged shootouts with police, and burned trains and stations in an outpouring of anger and violence. Parliamentary elections set for Jan. 9 were called off by President Pervez Musharraf, who had declared a state of emergency a month earlier to battle terrorism and extremism. But Musharraf himself became the target of wrath: By August the army general, who took charge of Pakistan in a 1999 coup, announced his resignation.
A week later the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff convened a secret meeting of senior U.S. and Pakistani commanders aboard an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean to discuss how to combat growing violence along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Following the meeting, the United States pressed its war in Afghanistan across the border into Pakistan, attacking al-Qaeda and Taliban strongholds, killing civilians along the way. Meanwhile, two suicide bombs killed at least 64 people in Islamabad in the week following Musharraf's resignation, and a bomb blast Sept. 20 destroyed the heavily defended Marriott Hotel in the capital, killing about 60 people. Gunmen also fired on chief U.S. diplomat Lynne Tracy in the northern city of Peshawar, but she escaped unharmed.
"Pakistan may be one of the single most challenging places on the planet," said retiring chairman of the National Intelligence Council Thomas Fingar. Why?
"The Taliban, the safe havens for terrorists, a fragile government-some would say dysfunctional government-wrestling with ungoverned territories, possessing nuclear weapons, civil-military relations," he told NPR on Dec. 11.
Pakistan found its relations with India further strained after a series of terrorist attacks on 10 sites in the financial hub of Mumbai (also known as Bombay). The November attacks included a 60-hour standoff between terrorists and Indian commandos that included fire at the historic Taj Mahal Hotel. All but one of the 10 terrorists were killed, and investigators quickly fingered the Pakistani terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Pakistani president Asif Zadari vowed to punish anyone connected with the attacks, and the military detained two suspected commanders in December as it became clear the attack was launched from Karachi. But that does not clear Pakistan's intelligence service, known as ISI and long suspected of ties with Lashkar and the Taliban.
Thousands of Christians from India's Orissa state fled their homes after a wave of violence launched by Hindu extremists in August. The murder of Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati threw fellow believers and extremists into a frenzy that was directed at local Christians, not the Maoists who claimed responsibility for the murder of the revered leader. The Maoists have a history of protecting local Christians from Hindu attacks-a friendship that has led to false accusations against Orissa's Christian community. Attackers killed more than 50 Christians and destroyed thousands of homes.
That's how a banner read along the president's route to the Pentagon for a speech March 19 marking the five-year anniversary of the war in Iraq. Four days later, the U.S. combat death toll in Iraq crossed the 4,000 mark. But the year ended with a clear note that the surge put in place by President Bush in 2007, together with Iraqi improvements in security, had achieved undeniable success: U.S. military deaths in 2008 stood at 302 as of Dec. 12, compared to 904 for 2007. Overall, 2008 was the lowest year for U.S. casualties since the war began in 2003.
Success on the battlefield, coupled with year-end passage of a U.S.-Iraq security agreement, paved the way for what experts call the beginning of the end of the war in Iraq. For President-elect Barack Obama that means debate is less over when to leave, as he insisted during the campaign, and more about how. In an unspoken nod to the late-war gains of the Bush administration, Obama asked current secretary of defense Robert Gates to remain in his administration.
But overall security does not mean safety everywhere, and attacks in some areas, and particularly on schools, churches, and other "soft targets" in Iraq actually increased in 2008, particularly around Mosul, the country's third-largest city and in the heart of its Christian population.
Church bombings in January preceded the February kidnapping of prominent Mosul church leader Paulus Faraj Rahho, the Chaldean archbishop. Associates discovered his body in a cemetery March 12. Violence returned to Christian neighborhoods of Mosul in October, as militants killed at least a dozen believers and forced thousands to flee to nearby villages and some to escape across the border to nearby Syria.
The new year began with an attack on American civilians working abroad. John Granville, 33, an officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Sudan, was gunned down along with his driver upon leaving a New Year's Eve party at the British embassy in Khartoum at 2:30 a.m. Sudanese officials arrested five men with connections to a Wahhabi Muslim sect who confessed to the murders and await trial.
Taliban militia shot and killed a Christian aid worker in Afghanistan as she walked to work in Kabul on Oct. 20, heightening concern over the safety of aid workers in the war-torn country-and around the world. Gayle Williams worked with disabled Afghans through the British charity group SERVE Afghanistan and held dual citizenship in Great Britain and South Africa.
The attack followed other targeted killings of aid workers: In August militias killed British-Canadian aid worker Jacqueline Kirk, 40, and two other women working for the charity International Rescue Committee. In January gunmen kidnapped American aid worker Cyd Mizzell and her Afghan driver outside of Kandahar. Mizell, 49, spent three years in Afghanistan working for the Asian Rural Life Development Foundation teaching high-school English and working with women. A month later associates acknowledged that they had received word from militants confirming that the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary graduate and her driver were dead.
The Supermax penitentiary in Florence, Colo., received a new man: convicted homegrown terrorist Jose Padilla. The Brooklyn native and former Chicago street gang member was sentenced in January to 17 years and four months in prison for conspiracy to kill overseas in the cause of jihad, and for material support of terrorism.
Padilla's case was a flashpoint for civil-liberties groups who argued that charges against Padilla should have been thrown out because he had been held in violation of the right of habeas corpus-the right to challenge his detention-and because of allegations of torture.
A jury of six military officers at Guantanamo Bay reached a split verdict Aug. 6 in the war crimes trial of a former driver for Osama bin Laden, clearing him of conspiracy charges but convicting him of supporting terrorism. But the jury returned a stunning sentence a day later, sentencing Salim Hamdan to 5½ years. With time already served, the convicted terrorist was returned to Yemen in November to serve the remainder of his sentence.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-defendants formally charged for the attacks of 9/11 just this year shocked military prosecutors when they announced in December they wanted to plead guilty to orchestrating the attacks and subsequent deaths of nearly 3,000 people. Mohammed, apparently seeking martyrdom while President Bush remained in office, backed off when the judge informed him it may not lead directly to a death sentence.