The assault on Marriott Hotel

The assault on Marriott Hotel
By H. K. Dua

LATEST medical researches have shown that stem cells gone bad can be the cause of cancer. The new President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, said after Saturday’s blast in Islamabad that terrorism is like cancer and that he was bent upon eradicating it from the body politic.

President Zardari was speaking to the nation after the blast that hit Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, just 500 yards from Prime Minister’s House where the President himself, the Prime Minister, Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani and all those who govern the beleaguered nation of Pakistan were attending an Iftar party.

Latest reports suggest that the malevolent elements wanted to attack parliament house where the entire leadership had gathered to listen to President Zardari’s first address to the National Assembly, but the terrorists shifted their target to Marriott nearby because of the heavy security surrounding the venue.

Over 160 million people of Pakistan are already worried about the fate of their country caught in poverty, the worsening economic crisis, restive regions and the baggage of long spells of army rule spaced by transitory civilian governments, and now troubles in its north-west.

All these problems have become formidable for the 61-year-old nation, during the last few years, with the rulers allowing the jihadis, extremists, fundamentalists, militants or terrorists of all kinds to grow in numbers and influence over most of what makes Pakistan.

The monster, thought to be a friend by the rulers over the years, has grown big and as often happens is now threatening to devour its masters. Many in Pakistan have begun to realise that unchecked it can endanger Pakistan itself, but they do not know how to tackle it.

No one in Pakistan or outside can be sure whether President Zardari will have the authority and time to attack the problems at the root. Jihadi militancy in Pakistan perhaps can be traced back to the days of Zia-ul-Haq, who believed in Jihadi Islam, allowed madrasas to grow, and encouraged fundamentalists to keep the political parties at bay. He also allowed the fundamentalist elements to join the army. Thanks to the Afghanistan war against the Soviet Union and the rise of the Taliban later, the jihadi stem cell has acquired an enormous shape, malignant and dangerous.

The Taliban was raised to help Pakistan acquire what was called a strategic depth across the Khyber in the wake of Soviet retreat from Afghanistan. Over the years, the Taliban and other extremist elements of similar disposition are staging a comeback in Afghanistan and acquiring their own strategic depth in Pakistan instead.

And now the Taliban’s hands have been strengthened by the Al-Qaida leaders and sundry groups armed with weapons and ideology. Al-Qaida and the Taliban are present not only in the tribal areas along Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan, they have also spread their reach in several parts of Pakistan, launching suicide bomb attacks to unsettle regimes inconvenient for them. The Marriott attack in the capital was only one of them. It was more than a warning for Asif Zardari, who has just moved into the presidency, as also for the entire ruling establishment.

Al-Qaida, the Taliban and other extremists see Zardari’s ascendancy to power as a part of US experiment of fighting terrorism through a joint venture of a civilian government and the armed forces. An army-civil dispensation as an instrument to fight terrorism has been the American thesis for a long time with only one difference that Zardari has replaced Benazir in Washington’s thinking after her assassination.

These calculations presume that the Pakistan Army is united in fighting the extremists and in the company of civilian rulers who come to power by vote or alliances and who generally go out of office, discredited, leaving the field free for men in khaki.

It should not be forgotten that the men who joined the army during Zia-ul-Haq’s time by now have reached Brigadier-level positions and even if 25 per cent of men in the army have Jihadi inclinations, the fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaida is bound to be half-hearted.

Also, the Taliban is the creation of the ISI, which raised it to create strategic depth for Pakistan in Afghanistan. To think that the ISI, which until the other day was led by none else than General Kiyani, has washed its hands of the Taliban, is asking for too much.

For Asif Zardari to assure his people that he will free Pakistan from the cancer of terrorism was natural for the new President. Whether he, even with support of the army, can combat the menace seems a tall order.

Fighting terrorism in Pakistan will be a long-drawn affair and require a united will of the people, the federal government in Islamabad, the political forces, the army and the provincial governments, and economic strength and social cohesion. All these are sadly lacking in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s society is fractured, its creaky, leaky political system caught in continuing conflict between a powerful army and weak political parties, and a powerful civil society yet to emerge to take effective control of Pakistan.

Saturday’s suicide attack in Islamabad was not just an audacious assault on a premier hotel in the vicinity of seats of power in the capital, but a serious challenge to the new rulers of Pakistan, civil or military. The elements who embarked on it certainly do not wish Pakistan well.