The security guard on the CCTV screen cut a lone, heroic figure. It was Sept. 20, and the guard stood at the barricaded entrance of Islamabad's Marriott Hotel trying to douse the explosives-laden truck while others around him ran for cover. Seconds later, the screen went white—the bomb had gone off, destroying the hotel and leaving more than 250 injured and 53 dead, including the Czech ambassador and two U.S. marines.
Less than two weeks later, Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, has also begun to seem something of a lonely figure. So far Zardari, who was elected president earlier this month, has managed to face down the lawyers' movement that weakened predecessor Pervez Musharraf's hold on power, and keep a step ahead of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his big political rival. But he is increasingly isolated and besieged. He faces a hostile local media, jittery allies and an increasingly unhappy population roiled by inflation and power outages and deeply distrustful of the United States. Zardari's visit to New York last week to attend the United Nations General Assembly—particularly his meeting with Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin—has been assailed by politicians and pundits as evidence of some unholy alliance with the U.S. political establishment.
All this has weakened whatever meager support Zardari might have had for resisting an increasingly emboldened militancy. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif remains conspicuously non-committal to the war against terrorism. Speaking to reporters before leaving for Saudi Arabia two days after the attack, Sharif skirted the issue, instead calling on the government to address his party's constitutional concerns. Sharif's party has called for closer ties with Tehran and for rejection of international economic support, which many fear could be linked to anti-terrorism efforts. For Sharif, that fear is personal: he has received death threats from the militants, according to Pakistan's Ministry of Interior. "Pakistani politicians and media have become apologists for terrorists, not because they believe all this is right but because they hate America and because they fear themselves being targeted," Mansoor Hussain, a columnist for the Daily Times, told NEWSWEEK. "They do not want to admit or understand that this is a fight to the death for us as a nation."
When it comes to terrorism, the press has mainly kept to anti-Americanism. (The incursion of unmanned drones and, more recently, U.S. troops into eastern Pakistan hasn't helped.) Ayaz Amir, a columnist and member of parliament from Sharif's party, repeated the popular refrain that terrorism is not Pakistan's problem in his weekly column for an English-language daily following the Islamabad bombing. "Our leadership is working overtime to convince a fed-up nation, which has lapped up more than its share of lies, that this is our war too and we are under a moral obligation to fight it," he wrote. Zardari is "more of America's man than even [his predecessor] Pervez Musharraf." Popular Urdu-language newspapers have been more vociferous, downplaying the attack as one that only targeted U.S. spies and Pakistan's misguided, Westernized liberal elite that heartlessly supports army action against fellow Muslims in Pakistan's tribal badlands.
For Zardari, like other Pakistani politicians, any link to the United States is toxic. According to a recent Pew survey, 64 percent of Pakistanis believe the United States is the greatest threat facing the country, and 73 percent fear U.S. military action against Pakistan. Several opposition members, talk show hosts and columnists have accused the United States and India of staging the Marriot bombing, despite the claim of responsibility by Fidayeen-e-Islam, a hitherto unknown militant group. (Fidayeen claimed the hotel was "full of U.S., NATO and FBI agents.) Qazi Hussain Ahmed, chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a religio-political party, claimed that "important government officials" told him the Marriot attack had been "planned in Washington and [New] Delhi." Government officials dismiss the claim, blaming Al Qaeda-affiliated outfits for the bombing.
For its part, Al Qaeda, in its recent video message, has again urged its acolytes to step up the fight inside Pakistan. Zardari's coalition partner in the North-West Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan, has ceded to the demands of extremists and agreed to impose Shariah laws by year's end in Malakand, an area in the sway of militant groups. Bomb threats have twice led to evacuations at Lahore International Airport, and once at Islamabad's Faisal Mosque. Security pickets surround popular franchises like McDonald's and KFC. Terrorist attacks during the upcoming Eid holidays, which mark the end of Ramadan, remain a concern. Abductions of foreign dignitaries, which are used as coin for prisoner exchange, are on the rise. The government is falling into the irresistible trap of negotiating and compromising with militants. The government has launched a media campaign against terrorism to complement ongoing army operations in the semi-autonomous tribal belt, but there is little evidence that this is influencing public opinion.
Pakistanis may distrust the United States, but they're not necessarily wild about the militants either. The latest BBC World Service poll released on Sunday shows that 19 percent of Pakistanis held negative feelings toward Al Qaeda, 19 percent felt positive toward it, and 22 percent had mixed feelings (40 percent offered no response). The Pew Global Attitudes Project survey conducted last year showed ambivalence: although support for suicide-bombings in Pakistan had diminished from 41 percent in 2004 to 9 percent in 2007, 61 percent of those polled held a favorable opinion of religious leaders and 38 percent of Osama bin Laden.
Whether or not Zardari can win these hearts and minds, he seems determined to wage the battle to the bitter end. Speaking to the nation in a televised address, shortly after the Marriott bombing, Zardari spoke more forcefully than ever before against terrorism. "I know what it's like to lose a loved one to terrorism," he said. "We are not afraid of death... but we are determined to clear this cancer from Pakistan."