Pakistan this weekend faced its toughest challenge since the election of president Asif Ali Zardari earlier this month. A suicide bomber driving a truck loaded with more than 1,000 pounds of explosives blew himself up early Saturday evening outside Islamabad’s luxury Marriott Hotel, killing 53 people and wounding several hundred. Most of the dead were Muslim guests who were breaking their day-long, Ramadan fast in the hotel restaurant when the bombing occurred.
Called the most devastating suicide attack ever to hit Pakistan’s capital city, it also claimed the lives of the Czech ambassador and at least two Americans. And while no one has claimed responsibility for the atrocity that has earned worldwide condemnation, the Pakistani Taliban, called the Tehrek-e-Taliban-Pakistan, and al Qaeda are strongly suspected.
“The government will continue to fight terrorism and extremism in all its forms and manifestations and such dastardly acts cannot dent the government’s commitment to fight this menace,” said a determined President Asif Ali Zardari, whose wife, Pakistan People’s Party leader Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in a terrorist attack last year that also killed 150 people.
While some reports indicate the terrorist strike was directed against Americans for their recent cross-border raid and Predator drone attacks against Taliban and al Qaeda border sanctuaries, the Pakistani government was the attack’s primary target. Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani said the suicide bomber only chose the Marriott after tight security had prevented him from reaching the nearby parliament building or president’s residence. President Zardari had made his maiden speech to parliament only hours earlier and was holding a dinner in his residence when the bomb exploded.
The extremists possess a deadly hatred for Pakistan’s new civilian government, with which they are locked in a life or death struggle. The strike was most likely in retaliation for the civilian leaders having sent the Pakistani army, using warplanes, tanks and heavy artillery, against their strongholds in Pakistan’s rugged, border regions six weeks ago. Citing this offensive as a reason, the Taliban also attacked a government armaments factory with suicide bombers in Wah last August, killing 70.
The all-out government offensive, while only in its initial stages, has cost the jihadists an estimated 1,000 dead and created 300,000 refugees, indicating the fighting’s intensity. The 100,000 government soldiers committed to the campaign demonstrate the Pakistani government’s determination to eliminate the terrorist bases and establish its writ in the tribal areas where the 9/11 attacks were planned and where Osama bin Laden’s suspected hideout is located.
Inexplicably, the Pakistani government-Taliban/al-Qaeda war has received little attention in the Western media in comparison to the recent five-day, Russian-Georgian conflict. This is surprising considering its strategic importance. Pakistan’s fate and that of the War on Terror depend on its outcome.
Prior to the government attack, the Tehrek-e-Taliban-Pakistan had already created an Islamic republic in Pakistan’s tribal agencies, the base area for the war in Afghanistan. It was also strongly established in the North West Frontier Province, while its brand of radical Islam was spreading cancer-like across the country.
“They (the Taliban) don’t just want to control the FATA (the Federally Administered Tribal Areas), but want to control the entire country,” says Ayesha Jalal, a historian of Pakistan.
So for the Pakistani government, the decision to launch the attack was a question of survival. The integrity of Pakistan as a nation state depends on its success. A retreat would spell disaster for their country’s fate and for the world, as it would lead to the unthinkable scenario of Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal eventually falling into al Qaeda and Taliban hands.
But as it currently stands, NATO forces are reaping benefits from the Pakistani army’s progress. They report there is less enemy activity in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, as jihadists, it is believed, are leaving to engage government forces in Bajaur, the neighboring Pakistani tribal agency and second strongest Taliban/al-Qaeda stronghold after Waziristan. Other Taliban and al Qaeda fighters are also probably not crossing the border in the other direction to battle NATO forces for the same reason.
The Pakistani army’s offensive into Al-Qaeda’s back areas may also have caused its “9/11 video” to come out several days late this year. In it, the terrorist organization called for the removal of the Pakistan’s “puppet regime” and for terrorist attacks on Western interests in Pakistan.
But with last weekend’s murderous assault on a Western hotel, the terrorists’ intention to show their power and intimidate and frighten may backfire. Islamabad was built for the country’s upper crust in the 1960s and ‘70s, and the Marriott was a major landmark, like the Twin Towers in New York, which defined the city. The five-star hotel has been called “the city’s throbbing cosmopolitan heart.”
And like the Twin Towers among Americans after 9/11, pictures of the degrading butchery and gutted, blackened hotel ruin appear to have struck a Pakistani nerve. As Zardari’s post-attack comments indicated, the murderous assault may lead to a stiffening of his country’s resolve to eradicate the terrorist bases. A lowering of the Taliban’s and al Qaeda’s credibility in the people’s eyes is also sure to occur.
Their credibility had already been badly damaged by prior terrorist actions against civilian targets. According to one report, more than 100 girls’ schools have been destroyed in two areas of Pakistan alone in the last ten months. The Taliban’s twisted interpretation of Islam also prevents children from receiving polio vaccinations. In an attack that is almost beyond comprehension, to enforce its ban, the Taliban sent a suicide bomber into a hospital that was administering polio shots where he detonated his deadly load.
But such barbaric bombings that take innocent Muslims lives are counterproductive. They have caused a large drop in sympathy for the Taliban, like the car bombings did for al Qaeda in Iraq. The suicide attack in Wah serves as a good example. After the carnage, a “large demonstration” took place that also saw shops close in sympathy with the dead Muslim workers.
So like in Iraq, Pakistani public opinion will most likely turn against the Taliban and al Qaeda’s for their murderous disregard for human life. Few people want homicidal religious fanatics to rule them, especially those who blow up their country’s hospitals and hotels.