On 20 September 2008, a terrorist attack carried out on the Marriott Hotel located in the highest security zone of Pakistan’s federal capital Islamabad, took a heavy toll on life and caused unprecedented collateral damage. Sixty people died including an ambassador and a number of foreigners, and 260 people were seriously injured. The Marriot Hotel was completely burnt and the main entrance had a twenty-four foot deep crater caused by six hundred kilograms of explosives that were used in the attack. Nearby buildings and parked vehicles in the vicinity also suffered serious damage while the whole city was rocked violently by the shockwave. The event was dubbed by many as Pakistan’s 9/11. The timing of the attack was also significant as it took place as President Asif Ali Zardari was scheduled to proceed to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly.
What message has been conveyed by the terrorists through this suicide attack? They have proved their effectiveness and viability despite massive military operations against their bases and sanctuaries in Swat, Bajaur and FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan] and also demonstrated their capability to penetrate a secured zone on a day when maximum security had been organized and apparently fool-proof arrangements had been made for the president’s address to the joint session of parliament.
The Marriott Hotel is located in the heart of a high security zone and two-hundred yards away from the parliament building. Extremists have also expressed their clear determination to challenge the new democratic government should it continue with the same policy and terms that the United States enjoyed during the government of [former president of Pakistan] General Pervez Musharraf.
The problem has been further compounded by the repeated violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty by US forces in Afghanistan despite protests by the government and the bold statement that was delivered by Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani to retaliate if incursions across the border do not stop. Violations continue unabated even when the top American political and military leadership repeatedly assured Pakistan that its sovereignty would be respected.
In reality however, there are two wars that are taking place concurrently on the same battlefield; one by Pakistani forces against the militants which has seen a high number of casualties on either side and resulted in the displacement of almost half a million innocent people from the affected area to camps established by the provincial government; and the other, by American forces across the Durand Line against Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban whose hideaways and sanctuaries are thought to be on Pakistani territory. So far, the American forces have not been able to hit any worthwhile target and have killed innocent women and children only.
The main purpose of these incursions appears to be to keep up the pressure on Pakistan’s democratic government in order to prevent any hasty policy reversal before a new understanding can be developed. The incursions are likely to continue and may even become more intense until the new government is established in the United States following the elections scheduled for November 2008. The whole game is very ironic in the sense that to begin with, it was the United States that asked Pakistan to help and assist in its war on terror in Afghanistan. Pakistan became a frontline state and a “non-NATO” ally enjoying a strategic partnership with the United States. In the next stage came a never-ending demand to “do more” and ultimately, it has reached a stage now where the American position has radically changed in two dimensions. Firstly, the Pashtun belt spanning the Durand Line has been declared as one single battlefield where targets may be acquired and engaged by NATO and American forces in Afghanistan at will and without any prior permission from Pakistan. This is being vigorously contested and objected by Pakistan. Secondly, and even more ironically, the United States now claims that the integrity of Pakistan is seriously threatened by extremists operating in and from its territory. Of course, the United States is willing and keen to assist Pakistan in fighting this war for its survival. The role appears to have been reversed. Previously, it was the United States seeking help and assistance from Pakistan; now it is Pakistan’s turn to run around looking for help.
The late Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan from self imposed exile with a promise to fight the extremists even more vigorously than General Pervez Musharraf. However, after her sad demise, the Pakistan People’s Party [PPP] gauging the general public’s aversion to the war on terror, mellowed gradually and began to advocate peace with extremists like all other parties. There had been surge in suicide attacks throughout Pakistan but the extremists scaled down their activities before the general elections which were held in February 2008, and restricted their activities to the North West Frontier Province [NWFP]. However, elections were held peacefully throughout the country and even in tribal areas where militants were perceived to be strong. The pause in terrorist attacks continued for a few months after the elections. The newly-formed democratic government declared a three-tiered strategy to deal with extremism.
Firstly, efforts were to be made towards achieving peace with the militants, followed by massive development activities to win the hearts and the minds of the people. Force, if required, was to be used only as a last resort. The provincial government of the NWFP also declared its intention to give the peace effort a serious try. Militants happily watched these developments and came forward with tough demands in peace negotiations with the provincial government. However, all peace offers were localized to few areas with limited scope and objectives and this too could not be sustained for any length of time. Lack of success is also attributed to America’s continuous violations of Pakistani sovereignty. The pause in suicide attacks lasted for about four months when both central and provincial governments declared that extremism could not be tolerated and demanded that militants first lay down their arms and surrender unconditionally.
Military operations in Swat and Bajaur and other tribal areas began on an unprecedented scale and intensity. Suicide attacks also restarted with new vigour. The attack on the Marriott Hotel should be viewed with this in mind.
A vast majority in Pakistan despairingly feels that the democratic government is likely to uphold the same unpopular policy that had been developed and followed by General Pervez Musharraf. An equally large number of people feel that the time has finally come for a show down with the militants. Thus the nation is confused and divided on the question whether this is Pakistan’s war or not. This is certainly the most crucial question and its answer will demonstrate the way forward. If this is Pakistan’s war then the entire nation must fight it; but if it is not our war then a way forward has to be found while averting confrontation with the United States and, at the same time, amicably settling the menacing problem of home-grown militancy.
As we search for a way forward, the first problem to be tackled by the government is to create a national consensus on the issue. A debate in parliament and a heart-to-heart with the leaders of all major political parties should be initiated immediately. If need be, a national government should be formed to develop a national policy belonging to all parties. Politicians must rise above the mundane issues of politics and think in terms of national interest rather than the party interest. Continuity of this policy, irrespective of who is ruling the country, will also be a prerequisite for success. To go back on it will be counter productive to the search for a solution to this situation.
There are three possible scenarios; any of which may materialise depending on the outcome of national debate. The first scenario is based on the continuation of Musharraf’s policy; the use of brute military force against the militants and compliance to American demands. This is the most likely scenario keeping in view the present position of the government. The positive aspect of this course of action may be seen in the economic revival; however the negative aspects are severe. Effect of loans and aid, foreign investments, enhanced exports, and favourable balance of payment could be nullified by heavy death tolls and further displacement of populations from the tribal areas as well as unprecedented escalation in suicide attacks, and consequent flight of capital, increase in unemployment rates and unbearable price hikes. Popular public support for the government will deteriorate quickly. Net result may be nothing but enhanced debt burden while the nation is in the grip of terrorism.
The second scenario is based on an overwhelming consensus in favour of confrontation with United States if the violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty continue and ending military operations against the militants with the intention of settling issues through peaceful means. This will definitely make the government popular at home. Suicide attacks will cease at least temporarily. The war against NATO forces in Afghanistan will escalate for which Pakistan would be blamed. Unbearable economic pressure coupled with threats to destabilize Pakistan would be the obvious downside of this scenario. Could the nation, where the average man is already hard pressed to make ends meet, withstand further economic crises? Countries enjoying higher degrees of national integration could withstand such pressures. Could we be included in this category at this point of time in our history? This second scenario is the least likely option.
The last scenario is via the media and stands between the two scenarios described above. This is based on engagement both with the United States as well as the militants. This is perhaps the best way forward under the circumstances. There are numerous dimensions to the lines of engagement with the United States. Firstly, Pakistan should make it clear that America cannot win the war on terror in Afghanistan unilaterally. NATO forces have failed to consolidate in the last eight years of occupying Afghanistan. Further expansion of the battlefield to tribal areas of Pakistan will only enhance their difficulties. Secondly, logistic support to NATO forces passes through Pakistan. The United States cannot continuously violate Pakistani sovereignty and expect the existing arrangement to continue. Thirdly, the United States blames Pakistan for cross-border movement of militants to Afghanistan. At the same time neither United States nor the Afghan government show much respect for the sanctity of this border and tend to violate it at will. A clear recognition and demarcation of the Durand Line is therefore necessary so that both sides can undertake concrete steps to prevent cross-border movement. Last but not the least; the United States should realize that compliance to its agenda will quickly cause public support of a democratically elected government to deteriorate. Pakistan can help and assist the United States but not at the cost of compromising its national interests. It must be a win-win situation for both. Engagement with extremists is also essential. People must realise that military action in tribal areas cannot succeed without the help of the local population.
Searching for small militant groups and key individuals who are mixed up with the local populace is like looking for a needle in a haystack. The lead role must be given to the local population that can provide human intelligence and deal with the terrorists while the military forces are available to help and assist. This is the main edge that democratic government enjoys in contrast to the government of General Pervez Musharraf that lacked popular support. Durable peace can be achieved through sustained engagement between the local leadership and militants. Suitable guarantees can be obtained and proper monitoring mechanisms can be put in place to ensure that both sides abide by the agreed terms. The question of foreigners and criminals residing in tribal areas can also be amicably resolved once mutual confidence and a working relationship has been established.
Once again Pakistan is at a crossroads. Pressure from both the United States and the militant extremists on the people and the leaders in Pakistan is nerve wrecking. Unbearable increases in prices and an adverse economic situation coupled with lack of investment and the flight of capital is destroying the fabric of society. Travel advisories are preventing foreigners from visiting and those already here are reluctant to stay. Suicide attacks and extremists have taken a heavy toll on the lives of innocent and patriotic people. Doubts are being raised about the security of nuclear assets and even the viability of the state. A way forward has to be found despite the enormity and complexity of the national scene.
People of this great nation have the capability to brave all odds. The future course has to be chartered carefully. We are our only hope. God willing, this too shall pass.