The truck laden with 1000 kg of explosives that suicide attackers rammed into the high-security Marriott hotel in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad on September 20, 2008 demolished a major power symbol, prompting many to call it “Pakistan’s 9/11.” Although the number of casualties, around 60, was far below the over 150 killed in the attack on late former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s welcome procession of October 18 last year, this attack had greater symbolic significance.
Many foreigners patronise the five-storey, 290-room hotel that was also reportedly being used for a covert operation by U.S. Marines, who were seen unloading a U.S. Embassy truckload of steel boxes the night of September 17 — the day Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani met U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen in Islamabad and convinced him to cease America’s military incursions into Pakistan.
The Marriott’s physical proximity to the country’s power centres places it in a high-security area near the Parliament, Supreme Court, Presidency and Diplomatic Enclave that houses many foreign missions, including the American, British, and Indian, close to several television and radio stations. Although most casualties were Pakistani — security guards and drivers — the dozen foreigners killed included American, German and Vietnamese citizens, besides the Czech Ambassador.
The attack was symbolically timed. It overshadowed the newly elected President’s maiden address to the joint parliamentary session of the National Assembly (elected representatives of the federal parliament) and the Senate (upper house) hours earlier. Beefed up security ahead of the address is believed to have deflected the attack from the National Assembly, which may have been its original target.
Then, the attackers struck at a traditionally peaceful time of daily thanksgiving, soon after ‘iftar’ when Muslims end their dawn-to-dusk fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
The message was clear: they can strike Pakistan’s capital, and they care nothing for democracy or for religion.
No one has claimed responsibility but the attack is assumed to be work of Pakistani Taliban (closely allied with Al-Qaeda) who have strongholds in the country’s north-west bordering Afghanistan. The American attack on this area on September 3 barely two days after Pakistan’s President took oath and subsequent such strikes generated great resentment. However, Pakistan’s threat of retaliation against these incursions has little meaning given America’s military might, and Pakistan’s client state status and heavy dependence on the U.S. And yet there are plenty of emotionally charged up people here who are eager to fight America.
These American strikes, apparently driven by the Bush administration’s need to boost the Republicans before the upcoming elections, illustrate American highhandedness and shortsightedness as they undermine Pakistani democracy which many see as the only hope for winning this war.
This nascent democracy is immeasurably threatened by the Taliban and Al Qaeda elements on Pakistan’s western borders and within its heartland. Pakistan reluctantly and half-heartedly abandoned its Taliban allies in post-9/11 Afghanistan, as they were successors of the Mujahideen it supported in America’s war against Communist Russia. After September 11, 2001, the American attack on Afghanistan drove Taliban elements across the border into Pakistan’s north-western tribal areas where they have ethnic, linguistic and historic ties. Their Al Qaeda friends, who have developed ties here through matrimony and a common enemy (America), joined them.
The Pervez Musharraf-led military regime heading Pakistan at the time aligned itself with America without taking the Pakistani people or politicians into confidence. It is no coincidence that Pakistan experienced its first suicide bombing in 2002. The new government elected in the February 2008 elections inherited a war largely perceived as “America’s war.”
The government must correct this perception — Al Qaeda and the Taliban pose a threat not just to the U.S. and Afghanistan but also to Pakistan as a nation, and to any democratic system. It must ensure that all elements of the state apparatus follow this policy. A military-only option is clearly not the answer: there must be a political roadmap. That is why it is imperative for a political government to be in place that represents the aspirations of the people.
The electorate made these aspirations clear during the general elections in February 2008: it wanted a change from past policies. This means rejecting military interference in politics and the politics of hate and religion, reining in the intelligence agencies (which have historic ties with the Mujahideen and their Taliban successors), and establishing peace with Pakistan’s eastern and western neighbours India and Afghanistan.
Currently, despite the difficulties, a widespread support for the democratic process is visible in Pakistan. In areas where the Pakistan government has enlisted local support against the Taliban, they have managed to push back the movement. Unfortunately, the heavy-handed military approach is undermining this support and boosting the Taliban. Since early August, pushed by America, the Pakistan army has been bombing Bajaur, the northern-most tribal agency sandwiched between Afghanistan and the settled North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Some 300,000 people are estimated to have fled the fighting, taking refuge in inadequate relief camps around the cities of Mardan and Peshawar. According to the lawyer and television talk show host Ayesha Tammy Haq who recently visited these camps, the displaced people say the same thing: “They wanted to be a part of Pakistan and to be treated like Pakistanis with enforceable rights,” she wrote in a newspaper column.
“They want to see development, schools, hospitals, jobs, better and safer futures for their children. None of them claimed to support the Taliban. In fact they said they did not want the system of governance that the Taliban had on offer, they want to see the Constitution of Pakistan apply to them not the [colonial] Frontier Crimes Regulation Act, they want to know that they have rights and a say in their futures.”
6 months ago