Analysis by Beena Sarwar
(IPS) – Political analysts have long been warning the United States and Pakistan governments that there are no easy military solutions in prosecuting the global `war on terror’ which may now have become inextricable from `home-grown’ militancy.
These warnings were grimly reinforced by the bomb attack on the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, on Sep. 20. If not the deadliest such attack this frontline country in the `war on terror’ has withstood, then it is perhaps the most symbolic in terms of venue and timing.
The number of suicide attacks and casualties in Pakistan has steadily risen since the first bombing here in 2002. The deadliest year so far was 2007, during which bomb blasts at the welcome procession of the late former prime minister Benazir Bhutto on Oct. 18, 2007 claimed over 150 lives, the highest number of casualties in any one attack.
The year culminated with the Dec. 27 attack that killed Bhutto. The number of casualties, around 30, was relatively low, but the attack deprived Pakistan of arguably its most visible human symbol of democratic aspirations, in whom many had vested hopes for a better future.
The Marriott bombing killed some 60 people after a lone suicide attacker rammed a truck laden with over 600 kg of high grade explosives into the hotel’s security barrier. The ensuing blast and fire demolished a major power symbol, prompting many to call it “Pakistan’s 9/11”.
Powerful, rich and famous Pakistanis and foreigners patronised the five-storey, 290-room hotel situated in a high-security area by the country’s power centres; parliament, supreme court, presidency and
diplomatic enclave that houses many foreign missions, including the U.S., British, and Indian and is near several television and radio stations.
Most casualties were Pakistani men and women — hotel employees, security guards and drivers. Foreigners killed included the recently appointed Czech ambassador and two U.S. marines.
Unconfirmed report say the marines may have been using the building for covert operations. Eyewitnesses reportedly saw marines unloading a U.S. Embassy truckload of steel boxes at the hotel on the night of Sep. 17, the day Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani met with U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen in Islamabad.
Gilliani extracted a promise from Mullen to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty and stop military incursions into Pakistan. But hours later, an American drone fired on a house in South Waziristan, a
tribal agency bordering Afghanistan, killing half a dozen people.
America has regularly been sending drones from its bases in Afghanistan into the bordering tribal agencies in Pakistan territory, bombing suspected al-Qaeda bases there. Pakistan’s military denied
the strikes, but protested loudly after September 3, when U.S. Navy Seals physically entered the tribal areas.
Analysts say that the Pakistan army’s threats of retaliation have little meaning given U.S.’ military power and Pakistan’s client state status with heavy dependency on aid. The Sep. 3 intrusion, two days after Pakistan’s new President Asif Ali Zardari took oath, and subsequent attacks only weaken the country’s nascent democracy, they say.
“Statements from U.S. civilian and military officials regarding Pakistan often contradict each other,” says the noted defence scholar Hasan Askari-Rizvi. “The typical pattern is that an American official defends military operations in the tribal areas but at the same time talks of respect for Pakistan’s sovereignty.”
The Marriott attack followed President Zardari’s maiden address to the joint parliamentary session of the National Assembly and Senate. Beefed up security, ahead of the address, is believed to have diverted the truck, disguised as a construction goods carrier, from the National Assembly and Prime Minister’s residence, which may have been the original targets.
The attackers struck at a religiously symbolic time, as Muslims offer thanks and end their dawn-to-dusk fast during the holy month of Ramadan. The message was loud and clear: they can strike in
Pakistan’s capital and care nothing for democracy or for religion.
No one claimed responsibility but Prime Minister Gillani pointed to the Pakistani Taliban and to al-Qaeda. Over the last few years, Taliban have developed strongholds in Pakistan’s north-west tribal
agencies where they have ethnic, linguistic and historic ties.
Although Pakistan initially appeared to be “winning the game”, it was caught off guard by the dramatic growth of the Pakistani Taliban, according to respected journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of the
bestseller “Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia”.
“Pakistani Pashtun tribesmen in the border region were quickly radicalised by their Al Qaeda guests,” said Rashid, writing in Yale Global Online on Sep. 19, a day before the Marriott attack. `’Last
year, Pakistani Taliban militias developed their own political agenda — to Talibanise northern Pakistan and create a new `sharia state’ that would lead to the balkanisation of Pakistan.”
The Marriott strike bears all the signatures of a `home-grown insurgency’, and was carried out “by the same people who attacked the FIA (Federal Investigation Agency) building in Lahore last year and
killed Benazir”, a retired army brigadier and defence analyst told IPS, asking not to be named. “The tribal agency people don’t have this kind of expertise, unless they have received outside help.”
If this is the case, then clearly a convergence has taken place, or is taking place, between these different forces, say analysts.
The situation is exacerbated by U.S. strikes, apparently driven by the Bush administration’s need to boost the Republicans before the upcoming elections, after having ignored the Taliban and al Qaeda
build up in Pakistan’s tribal areas for the past seven years.
“Facing the humiliating prospect of Osama bin Laden outlasting a two-term presidency and even expanding his reach, President Bush has pushed the Pentagon into a do-or die-hunt for bin Laden,” commented Rashid. “Whether the search for an `October surprise’ for the election succeeds or not, the radical threat is now beyond easy military solution.”
Many believe that the success of democracy in Pakistan is the only hope for winning this war. The country’s policies until the recent elections were driven by military strategists with no political road
map. The government elected in February inherited a situation largely perceived as `America’s war’.
It must now 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 — and ensure that all
elements of the state apparatus follow this policy.
In areas where the Pakistan government has enlisted local support against the Taliban, they have pushed back the movement. But the heavy-handed military approach is undermining this support and
boosting the Taliban which finds it easy to gain recruits from among disgruntled, armed tribesmen.
However, not all tribal people support the Taliban. Many among the 800,000 who have fled fighting between the Pakistan army and the Taliban since 2006 and taken refuge at camps near Mardan and Peshawar just want to be respected as Pakistanis, says lawyer and television talk show host Ayesha Tammy Haq who recently visited some camps.
“All the refugees I spoke to said they want 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,” she wrote in a recent newspaper column.