There was an unmistakable message amid the rubble of the Marriott bombing in Islamabad: military operations in Pakistan’s tribal agency regions cannot ensure security for the country, even in the heart of its capital.
The Marriott was targeted probably because it was a hub for foreigners, including diplomats and foreign soldiers on their way to Afghanistan. The blast killed the Czech Ambassador to Pakistan and at least 50 others. Four United States marines were among the hundreds injured.
Yet the vast majority of those killed or injured, as with all previous attacks, were ordinary Muslim Pakistanis. Several hundred civilians have been killed in such suicide attacks since the start of this year.
There is little sympathy for the militants in Pakistan now. But the fact that the country’s own army has killed or displaced thousands of its own citizens in the tribal agencies makes it difficult to cast this war as a battle between Pakistan, with its Western backers on one hand, and extremism on the other.
"America is behind this," says Riaz, a taxi driver in Islamabad. "No Muslim could ever do this to other Muslims."
President Asif Zardari seemed to echo part of that sentiment when he said on television after the blast that Muslims would never commit such an atrocity. Unlike Riaz and many others, Zardari does not have the luxury of blaming outsiders.
Now more than ever, the Pakistan Government must challenge the Islamic credentials of those who perpetrate crimes that kill ordinary Muslims.
The first step will be to provide a coordinated response to the social and security disaster engulfing the tribal beltway along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. So far that area has seen only a series of ad hoc military operations.
The intense campaign of bombardments and ground assaults by Pakistan and US forces has not stifled the militancy. While the Taliban is unpopular among most tribal communities, there is little support for Islamabad or Washington. Centuries-old resentment towards outside interference has been exacerbated by US and Pakistan operations that have killed several thousands and displaced over 300,000, according to Rehman Malik, the Prime Minister’s Adviser on Interior Affairs.
There are signs, despite this, that the military strategy will escalate in the wake of the Marriott bombing.
US strikes have been steadily increasing since the resignation of Pervez Musharraf as President of Pakistan in August. There have been over 20 strikes this year already, compared to only three during all of last year.
Approval for the strikes comes straight from President Bush. With its staunchest ally out of the picture and itself soon to follow, the Bush Administration is acting with increased urgency.
But behind the apparently bold posture, there is confusion over the US strategy in Pakistan. That confusion may be the result of a bureaucratic tussle between those for and against unilateral military actions.
Officially, the US coordinates all of its attacks in conjunction with Pakistan. Last Thursday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen reassured his counterparts in Rawalpindi, where the Pakistan Armed Forces are headquartered, that the US would coordinate future attacks with Pakistan. Merely hours later another US missile strike killed five people in South Waziristan.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates refuses to categorically rule out the use of unilateral strikes if it is perceived to be in US interests. When asked by a reporter in London last week Gates indirectly stated that Pakistan was the new central front in the war on terrorism.
According to CIA director Michael Hayden the strikes have more to do than merely kill militant leaders. Hayden argues that the strikes give the US an opportunity to learn about the militants’ movement patterns in a region that is rugged, with limited infrastructure, and hence ideal for guerrilla warfare.
The presumption underlying this strategy is that it is important for the US to act quickly, even if non-military options prove more durable in the long term. That is the position of John Negroponte, the most senior bureaucrat working on US policy on Pakistan. He said unilateral strikes were not a viable long term solution.
That is cold comfort for Pakistan’s leadership. The US attacks in its territory have forced the Pakistan Government into a schizophrenic position. On the one hand it must be seen to be taking ownership of the conflict. There are domestic and international reasons for this. Pakistan, a desperately poor country with many ethnic and linguistic divisions, has always struggled for national cohesion since its establishment in 1947. The Taliban poses the greatest threat to that cohesion since the 1971 war with India that lead to the creation of Bangladesh.
Foreign governments, particularly the US and NATO countries, also expect much more from Pakistan. The extent to which Pakistan actively supports militancy is unclear. What is clear is that the militancy would not have occurred without decades of support from Pakistan’s Inter-service Intelligence, and billions in US and Saudi military assistance during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
In short, Pakistan still needs to prove that it is an agent of stability, not chaos. (That the US itself does not acknowledge similar questions about its own role is a matter worthy of several volumes of analysis.)
At the same time the Pakistan Government must also satisfy its own population that it will not tolerate foreign attacks in its territory. With problem inflation and rising energy costs, the last thing ordinary Pakistanis need is to feel encroached upon by foreign powers.
As a result, Islamabad has stridently claimed that it will not tolerate foreign intrusions into the country. There is evidence of at least one instance, last week, of Pakistani forces firing warning shots towards a US commando squad attempting a ground assault within Pakistan.
In reality, however, there is very little Pakistan can do to dissuade the world’s only superpower should it decide to step up its presence in Pakistan, and Pakistan’s leaders know that. Pakistan is entirely dependent on the US for its international standing. Both politically and militarily, the US lends Pakistan credibility, even if that credibility is itself questionable.
The apparent contradictions in this have very real consequences. The result is a haphazard approach to the extremists in Pakistan’s tribal agencies with little or no consideration of soft power options. The Pakistan Army has tried to develop an alliance of tribal militias to combat the Taliban. But this approach has backfired spectacularly because many of those it supports are criminals and racketeers, people known to harass the local population just as any mafia syndicate or gang would. Stuck between these two options, tribal communities have decided that the Taliban is the lesser of two evils.
Time and again, the extremists throw down the gauntlet to Pakistan’s authorities. The Marriott Hotel bombing is but the latest, most deadly of these challenges. But to win the war against Islamic extremism, Pakistan must first win the battle for hearts and minds in its tribal agencies.
The greatest challenge for Pakistan will be finding a response beyond yet further military operations.
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