Unstable Pakistan : No military solution

Political analysts have long been warning the US 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 Sept. 20. If not the deadliest such attack this frontline country in the ‘war on terror’ has withstood, then it is perhaps the most symbolic.

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 PM 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 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 US, British, and Indian and is near several TV 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 US marines. Unconfirmed report say the marines may have been using the building for covert operations. Eyewitnesses reportedly saw marines unloading a US Embassy truckload of steel boxes at the hotel on the night of Sept. 17, the day PM Yousuf Raza Gillani met with US 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 US Navy Seals physically entered the tribal areas.

Analysts say that the Pakistan army’s threats of retaliation have little meaning given US military power and Pakistan’s client state status with heavy dependency on aid. The Sept. 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 US 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 PM’s residence, which may have been the original targets.

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 US 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 Ayesha Tammy Haq who recently visited some camps.

“All the refugees I spoke to said they want development, schools, hospitals, jobs, better 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. — IPS