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Country on Fire

Friday 26 September 2008, by Ayesha Siddiqa

The rubble of the Islamabad hotel bombing leaves Pakistan with only one option: to escape from the Washington-Taliban vice that traps it, says Ayesha Siddiqa.

The bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on 20 September 2008 has hit Pakistan hard. The reputation of the hotel as a meeting-point and social hub for the capital’s political and diplomatic class ensured that the attack - which killed fifty-three people and wounded 250 - would receive the maximum worldwide publicity that the assailants doubtless wanted. But the effect of the enormous blast involving around 600 kilograms of explosives also reinforced the insecurity of the working-class Pakistanis who were its principal victims. Even more, the incident has intensified serious concerns over the political future of Pakistan itself.

In assessing the country’s predicament at this critical juncture, three elements that often fail to get the attention they deserve need to be borne in mind: the role of Washington and the way it is perceived by Pakistanis; the distinction between the country’s ostensible (or political) government and its real (or shadow) one; and the role of class and its changing dynamics in Pakistan’s economy and society.

A disunited nation

When the newly elected president of Pakistani, Asif Ali Zardari, made his maiden speech before the joint session of parliament on 20 September 2008, many Pakistanis thought that the country would at last begin to stabilise. The 53-year-old widower of the Pakistan People’s Party uncontested leader Benazir Bhutto - who was assassinated on 27 December 2007 - might carry with him a questionable reputation, but the support he received during the election process gave him at least the plausible appearance of a unifying figure.

The feeling didn’t last long. Within a few hours of the speech in which Zardari, successor to Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan’s hot-seat, promised the nation he would fight terrorism and uphold the country’s sovereignty - the Pakistani capital was struck by one of the most destructive urban terrorist attacks in the country’s history.The bomb-blast outside the five-star, five-storey Marriott hotel - which was frequented by diplomats, foreigners and affluent Pakistanis - left also a huge crater as a mark of its scale (see Beena Sarwar, "The Marriott Bombing: ‘Pakistan’s 9/11’?", Chowk, 22 September 2008).

A matter of equal concern was that the terrorist attack had taken place a mile away from the presidential palace where the just-installed president was hosting a party for the top leadership of the country, including the military.

The event, profoundly shocking and depressing in itself, also raises questions about Pakistan’s ability to fight terrorism -and even its very future. The confidence of many Pakistanis has been shaken. People are nervous about Zardari’s ability to fight the menace of terrorism and lead the country through the storm. But he is not the only target of criticism. Washington also is being widely blamed in Pakistan for launching military incursions into Pakistani territory a few days before the presidential vote was finalised (see Paul Rogers, "Pakistan: the new frontline", 18 September 2008).

The bombing of 20 September thus has divided the nation at the very time it most needs unity in response to the terrorist threat. This disunity, if it continues, will make it even harder for the new civilian regime to continue the struggle to maintain and enlarge democracy in Pakistan.

The real and the shadow

The majority of the dead in the Islamabad blast were poor working-class people, among them the Marriott’s private-security guards and hotel staff. The affluent and politically liberal element of Pakistani society that formed a large part of the hotel’s clientele is also in a state of shock. Both sets of people are asking: how can the regime protect everyday citizens when it could not stop a dumper-truck packed with RDX and TNT from entering and targeting a high-security area?

Many diplomats - stunned especially by the death in the blast of the Czech ambassador Ivo Zdarek - are now thinking of relocating their families, and foreign missions have generally warned their staff and nationals to avoid hotels and public places. The government’s bizarre explanation for the blast, meanwhile, shows it to have little confidence in the people. The interior minister Rehman Malik, who is seen as one of Zardari’s favoured colleagues, tried to deflect claims that the target was the American marines staying in the hotel; on 22 September he declared that Pakistan’s political leadership had planned to meet for dinner at the hotel, but that the security agencies had received a tip-off about a possible attack on the venue, and had acted quickly to avert this.

The evidence proves otherwise. The owner of the hotel said that the government had made no such original booking. But the sequence of statements raises fresh questions about the veracity of Rehman Malik’s claim, as well as more general concerns about why enough had not been done to protect a place that was home to many foreigners and had already been attacked.

What is worse is that Zardari left the country for his trip to the United States hours after the blast. This made him even less credible in the eyes of the people, who would have appreciated had he postponed his trip as a gesture of support for the victims. At this stage the regime’s public standing is an important issue because this alone will enable him to fight the terrorist menace (see "How to beat the terrorists?", Economist ,23 September 2008).

But with every passing day the division between the "political" government and the "invisible" government - which includes the military - seems to increase. While Zardari chose to follow his schedule of visitng the United States (viewed by many Pakistanis as the deeper source of the threat to Pakistan), the army chief Ashfaq Kayani flew to China (a country that enjoys greater confidence among Pakistani citizens). If the two segments of the government begin to pursue a divergent line, the problems of the country are bound to increase. As it is, the invisible government is doing far less than it should if it is to dismantle the terror outfits that it once nurtured to fight the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan during the 1980s and later in Kashmir.

There is a difference of opinion within the state regarding which is the larger at threat: domestic terrorism or the United States? A weak Zardari, or one whose reputation for probity and good judgment continues to be doubted, will find it increasingly difficult to control the military and make it follow his line. A close examination suggests that while the political government is more willing to seek American help, the military is more concerned about Washington’s plan to encourage Indian influence in Afghanistan and strengthen New Delhi to Islamabad’s disadvantage.

A third option

It is a matter of concern that the Islamabad attack, like those preceding it, has failed to generate any domestic consensus about the nature of the threat. Indeed, the situation is worse: for the Marriott bombing has further highlighted an emerging class as well as exposes an ideological divide within Pakistani society. Pakistan’s middle class is far from exclusively composed of affluent, upwardly-mobile, western-educated liberals; many in this category are conservative, and some of them are even involved in funding both madrasas and jihad.

Those involved in small or medium-sized businesses in the urban areas of Pakistan - especially the bazaaris or the trader-merchant class - often view orthodox forms of religion as a source of empowerment and a tool to renegotiate power in a stagnant, feudal social order. These people also form the constituency of the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and of Pervez Musharraf’s former ally (who also briefly served as prime minister in 2004), Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain. But very few observers see the class issue in this war. The Taliban have killed the maliks (who represented old power), while many neo-Taliban view themselves as challenging traditional power-structures. The Pakistani media is equally confused on the question, partly because many of the popular presenters and journalists themselves - like most of the middle class now - have a conservative leaning.

Things become even more complex in the lack of understanding of the need to reform the education system, including the madrasas. The international aid agencies and governments must shoulder the responsibility for skewed thinking here. The present-day seminaries are different from what such schools were like in the past. Today, they produce ideological zealots who are more likely to be reinforced in their beliefs than re-educated by the sort of madrasa reform projects sponsored by the United States’s Usaid and Britain’s department for international development (DfID).

The present crisis is far more serious than any Pakistan has ever experienced (see Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan’s political turmoil: Musharraf and beyond", 27 August 2008). Islamabad does not have the choice of supporting either the United States or the Taliban. The government ought to try to build a broad social consensus, in part by encouraging its partners - such as Maulana Fazlur-Rehman, leader of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Islamic Party of Religious Leaders / JUI) - to persuade low-ranking mullahs to condemn attacks such as that on the Marriott.

This effort to create a domestic coalition that can address such acts of terror should be part of a larger agenda to reach out to the rest of the world - including Russia, Iran, China, India and others - to keep the Americans at bay. Pakistan needs to go multilateral. Unless a third option is found beyond Washington and the Taliban, Pakistan will continue to burn - until it consumes itself.

Ayesha Siddiqa is an independent political and defence analyst. She is the author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy is published by Pluto Press (15 April 2007)

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