Significance of the Marriott bombing

The suicide attack on the Marriott has brought into question Pakistan’s participation in the war on terrorism. In a sense the attack was the consequence of the flawed policies which permitted our territories to be used as a place of refuge by the multinational militants who fled Afghanistan after the US attacked and destroyed the Taliban government in Kabul in November 2001.

From January 2008, Pakistan began to confront the militancy in FATA more vigorously. This new military trend was heralded with the launching of operation “Zalzala,” against Baitullah Mahsud and his group. This operation was in the nature of collective punishment in which homes and property worth a considerable amount were destroyed, including the main market in Kotkai Razgai.

After the Mahsud operation the insurgency situation in parts of FATA and the NWFP has aggravated considerably. The operation in Bajaur has developed into a small war and the level of violence there is greater than in past confrontations. There are a considerable number of internally displaced persons generated by this new violence. More than 300,000 people have fled from the battle zones to other parts of Pakistan. Due to the increase in collateral deaths the number of motivated tribesmen seeking revenge by joining the ranks of suicide bombers has also increased. This is probably the cause of the Marriott bombing.

On the other hand Pakistan and its ally, the US, have differences over strategy. Pakistanis are upset by the violation of its sovereignty by the US. However, it is for consideration whether we should criticize others when the militants have already usurped Pakistani sovereignty over large tracts of territory south of Kohat; it barely exists in Waziristan. Obviously the loss of control over territory means that the militants have not only obtained control over people and resources but also have the space to plan and prepare operations in Pakistan.

It is now generally acknowledged that the militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan have mastered the art of communication operations. These aim to shift the perception of Pakistanis and Islamists around the world in their favour. The Marriott bombing is in the nature of an announcement that aims to challenge official Pakistani claims of ascendency in Bajaur and Swat. It is a statement telling the Pakistani political elite that the war and the cooperation with US will cost it dear.

Let us examine some of the other aspects of the Marriott bombing. This hotel is located within a security zone, which includes national institutions like the Supreme Court, the Prime Minister’s Office and Parliament. On the day of the bombing the new Pakistani president was making his inaugural address to Parliament and the assembly was packed with Pakistan’s civil, military and intellectual elite. One can conclude with a high degree of certainty that the target of the suicide raid was the National Assembly. If the attempt had succeeded the loss to Pakistan would have been great. It is surmised that the failure of the militants to penetrate the security around the Parliament forced them to divert to a secondary target, which happened to be the unfortunate hotel. A more successful militant attack would obviously have spread chaos and disorder causing destabilisation in Pakistan.

Secondly, the attack copied a strategy followed by Al Qaeda in Iraq in the Samarra bombing. That bombing was aimed at causing a Shia-Sunni war, which would have destroyed Iraq. A similar effect would have occurred in Pakistan had the National Assembly been hit. Is there a link between the Marriott bomber and the transnational militants fighting in Khost, Paktika and Paktia provinces of Afghanistan? The existence of such a connection cannot be over ruled.

What are the likely consequences of this tragedy? First, it is clear that its impact on Pakistani people will be one of revulsion and hatred against the militants; this is the sentiment which prevails in FATA when collateral deaths are caused by Pakistani or US attacks. The sufferers are infused with hatred and wish revenge. The families of those who suffered in this attack must feel the same way. Although the militants carried out a strategic information attack but the effect on their cause is negative. It will build the resolve of Pakistanis to support their government more.

What other messages can one get from the Marriott tragedy? First, we must implement a “zero tolerance” policy on militancy of any kind. It is extremely dangerous to believe that we would benefit from distinguishing between good and bad terrorists, as Gen Musharraf did. Gen Musharraf allowed safe refuge in Waziristan to militants who fled from Afghanistan after the US attack in November 2001. By doing so Musharraf endangered Pakistan’s national security. By permitting such war-hardened radicals to fraternise with Pakistani tribes permitted the establishment of a very dangerous type of social networking. It is this association which has spread the virus of militancy throughout FATA and the NWFP and could soon infect other parts of Pakistan. The Jamia Hafsa episode is yet another example of the radical type of networking reaching critical mass right in the heart of Islamabad. American political scientist Paul E Petersen has remarked that “people don’t get pushed into rebellion by their ideology. They get pulled in by their social network.” If Pakistan wants to move away from this self-created calamity then it needs to transform itself and reject association with proxy warriors of any kind, irrespective of any strategic advantage that they may provide.

If social networking is at the heart of terrorism then the Marriott bombing is a call to put into practice a whole range of policies to counter the anti-Pakistan social networks. It would mean the mobilisation of communities in FATA and the NWFP to protect themselves against the militants. Techniques and plans for such an approach exist and need to be examined for implementation. If one can re-occupy the national space in an average Pakistani’s heart, then one could say that the country has achieved the threshold for success. One of the central principles of this approach is to address effectively the everyday problems of a poor Pakistan. In order to do so the leadership will have to become more responsive to the needs of the average Pakistani.

Furthermore, we need to re-examine our security policies related to Afghanistan, FATA and the US. One of the problems of this war is that the operations in Afghanistan are planned by the US military, the CIA and NATO. While there can be coordination between the US military, NATO and Pakistan, the same cannot be said for the CIA, which is a law unto itself. Otherwise, how else can one explain the embarrassment of the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee during his recent meeting with Pakistani authorities? At the very moment Admiral Mullen was making a commitment to the Pakistani leadership that US attacks on the country would cease, US Predators were attacking Waziristan. To end this confusion it is essential for the US to have a single commander in Afghanistan who is in charge of both overt and covert operations. Pakistan must remain in the information loop if we want to win the war on terrorism.

Pakistan needs to carry out a security overview of lapses that occurred during the Marriott bombing. Security was woefully poor and badly compromised. It is time that we emphasised the protection of the people of Pakistan. Only then will we succeed in meeting this challenge.

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