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Archive for September, 2008

Baitullah Mehsud: Dead?

News sources are reporting that Baitullah Mehsud, the elusive head of the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) [also known as the Pakistani Taliban] died of kidney failure. According to CNN, “An unnamed Islamabad-based source with connections within the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan said Mehsud died about 1 a.m. Wednesday. Military officials in the field confirmed to CNN that Mehsud had died.” Media outlets had previously speculated over Mehsud’s recent disappearance. The Nation reported today, “Well-informed sources told The Nation that the months long disappearance of the top Pakistani Taliban commander were casting doubts over his deteriorating health.”

Dawn [link is now gone] also reported that the TTP leader had died from kidney failure, adding, “Baitullah Mehsud was known to be suffering from diabetes and hypertension.” However, these reports have not been independently confirmed, and the militant organization is [not surprisingly] denying he is dead. The Nation also cited “an insider source” that said Mehsud did not disappear due to health reasons, but because of the military offensive in the tribal areas.

According to CNN, Mehsud’s death (if reports are true) “would leave a power vacuum within the Mehsud tribe and the Pakistani Taliban…Since there was no second in command of the Mehsud tribe, tribal splits are expected.” Analysts predict a power struggle to appoint the next leader of the TTP.

UPDATE [10/1]: Updated reports from Dawn and the AFP noted that despite reports that Mehsud had died, “officials and militant sources insisted he was still alive.” These sources reportedly told the AFP that Mehsud is seriously ill with diabetes and may be in a coma. Taliban commander Rahim Burki told the news agency, “He is only suffering from a bout of diabetes. He is under treatment but he will be all right.” Another commander said, “Baitullah needs medical attention two or three times a week and he is growing weaker.”

CHUP will cover this story as it is updated. For more information on Baitullah Mehsud, please click here to read CHUP’s backgrounder on the militant leader. [Image from the AFP]

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On Monday, BBC News cited the United National High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which stated that 20,000 people have fled Pakistan’s tribal area of Bajaur for Afghanistan “amid fighting between troops and militants in recent months.” The BBC added, “The UN’s refugee agency says almost 4,000 families have crossed north-west into Afghanistan’s Kunar province.”

UNHCR spokesman Nadir Farhad said the organization would look out for the refugees’ welfare if they are unable to return home as “winter sets in.” He was quoted saying, “It’s very difficult to predict the security situation on the other side of the border but what we hope is that the security gets better and people will be able to go back.” Although many of the families have found accommodation with friends or family, UNHCR reported “that some 200 families are already living without shelter.” BBC added, “The UNHCR says around 70% of the families are from Pakistan but the rest are Afghans who have been living in Pakistan.” [Image from BBC News]

Dawn also reported on the evacuation of Bajaur residents amid the intensifying conflict. The news agency reported,

Military authorities issued a warning to civilians in Taliban-dominated areas in Bajaur to move to safe places…Pamphlets were dropped from helicopters in Khar, asking people to vacate areas where militants were hiding and not to travel after sunset and warning that they could be attacked if the instructions were not followed.

In August, the Pakistani military launched this offensive against militants in Bajaur, the smallest of Pakistan’s seven tribal agencies, which are “semi-autonomous ethnic Pashtun tribal regions,” reported Reuters. According to the BBC’s Barbara Plett, “Bajaur is a crucial hub for insurgents. It has access routes to Afghanistan and the rest of Pakistan and the Taliban knows its worth.” On Monday, a Dawn piece assessed whether this operation, dubbed Operation ‘Sher-dil’ ["Operation Lionheart"] has been successful. The news agency cited military sources who said in a media briefing on Monday, “It is a continual operation. It is not going to end in 2008 and it is not going to end in 2009. Don’t be optimistic, as far as the timeframe is concerned. It is a different ground and it will take some time.”

In Bajaur, noted Dawn, militants were putting a more stiff resistance than the military’s offensive in Swat, using “better tactics and communication system, reinforcements and heavy weapons from across the border.” A military official told news sources:

Those who have been telling us to do more, we turn around and ask them to do more. Stop the reverse flow into Bajaur. It’s coming. Heavy weapons are coming. The militants are coming…The militants are coming and their travel starts from Central Asia; they cover the entire track of Afghanistan. You are not stopping them and they are coming into our country…

Reuters also cited this senior military source in their coverage. They quoted the official stating, “The Pakistani-Afghan border is porous and is now causing trouble for us in Bajaur…Now movement is taking place to Pakistan from Afghanistan.” Although the officials did not blame the Afghan government for the movement of militants across the border, they did call on Kabul and U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan forces to help halt their flow.

Although the U.S. supports the Bajaur operation, they are also demanding “a widespread crackdown on militant bases… throughout the tribal belt, and especially those used for launching attacks on international and Afghan troops in Afghanistan,” reported the BBC. However, Pakistani generals say they don’t have the resources for an all-out war. Army spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas told the news agency, “One has to prioritize the bigger threat…Is it a compound in [the tribal areas of] North or South Waziristan, or is it Bajaur, which has become a huge stronghold of all the militants?” Although cross-border infiltration is a concern, Pakistan must primarily focus on combating a local insurgency that threatens its people and its overarching state.

Aside from the military offensive in Bajaur, the Pakistani Army is undertaking other tactics to overturn this militant stronghold. Media outlets have reported that the Pakistani Army is also encouraging local villagers to take up arms against the Taliban. The Wall Street Journal reported, “The Pakistani army is backing tribal militias that are rising to battle pro-Taliban groups, a development that the government hopes will turn the tide against insurgents here in the embattled northwest.” According to the Guardian, “The Pakistani movement relies on tribal customs and widespread ownership of guns to raise traditional private armies, known as lashkars, each with hundreds or several thousand volunteers.” The news agency quoted Asfandyar Wali Khan, head of the Awami National Party [the secular political party which heads the NWFP provincial government], who said, “There’s going to be a civil war…It will be the people versus the Taliban.” [Image from Reuters]

The lashkars have reportedly been organized in Bajaur, Peshawar, Khyber, Swat, Dir, Buner, and Lakki Marwat, and “have had some success in driving the Taliban from local areas by conducting patrols and burning down the homes of Taliban fighters and their supporters,” noted the Long War Journal. Already news outlets are hailing the militias’ formation and likening them to Iraq’s Sunni Awakening movement in Anbar province. However, the tribal dynamics in the northwest region of Pakistan are markedly different and  constitute a more complex terrain. The LWJ reported,

The Pakistani government has to coordinate different strategies for each individual tribe, making the task of tribal engagement difficult. “The dynamics [with each tribe] are very different, as is the strategic situation of each tribe,” the source stated. “The biggest single hurdle is that there is no overarching body to coordinate tribal resistance In contrast to the TTP [Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan].”

Although the lashkars operate as distinct, local units, the Pakistani Taliban can coordinate support for their activities across northwest Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. The LWJ noted that this is complicated further by the tribes’ unwillingness to cooperate with the government and the military. Some tribes also claim to be equally opposed to the Taliban and U.S./NATO troops, [see this video by BBC News]. While the tribes’ resistance to the Taliban should be seen as a positive, the complexities of their allegiance should still act as a reality check for those already hailing it “Pakistan’s answer to the Anbar Awakening.”

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Debating on Pakistan

So the first U.S. presidential debate just ended, and initial post-debate polls have indicated that it was a victory, albeit a narrow one, for Democratic candidate Senator Barack Obama. However, as is now expected in a debate on U.S. foreign policy, the  question of Pakistan was a source of disagreement between the candidates. So what was said?

Sen. Obama took issue with the current level of troops in Iraq, asserting the need to send at least two to three additional brigades to Afghanistan to counter the growing militant threat in the region. While discussing a strategic shift towards Afghanistan, Obama also talked about the need to deal with Pakistan, since both the Taliban and Al Qaeda have established safe havens in the northwest areas. According to Obama, the U.S. has given Pakistan $10 billion in military aid and assistance, “and they haven’t done what needs to be done to get rid of those safe havens.”

Republican candidate Sen. John McCain shot back, “If you’re going to point a gun at someone, you better be ready to pull the trigger…and I’m not ready to threaten Pakistan.” The presidential candidate accused Obama of threatening military strikes against Pakistan, and noted he [McCain] would cooperate with the Pakistani people, since “he knows how to work them.” Although McCain called for a new strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan that would mirror the ‘surge’ in Iraq, it would inherently require more troops on the ground.

In his rebuttal, Obama asserted that “no one talked about attacking Pakistan.” Instead, he reaffirmed his  stance that, “If Pakistan is unable to attack [Al Qaeda and Taliban targets] then we should take them out.” The problem with our past strategy with Pakistan, he noted, was that Washington “coddled Musharraf,” in turn alienating the Pakistani population. Ultimately, Obama added, the United States “lost legitimacy in Pakistan” as a result of such an approach.

At the peripheral level, John McCain took a much softer approach on Pakistan, emphasizing that  aggressive statements about U.S. attacks against Pakistan are counter-productive and risk alienating the Pakistani population and government. He spent the majority of the time, however, criticizing Obama’s “hawkish” stance on the country. Barack Obama reiterated his previous stance, asserting that if Pakistan wouldn’t go after AQ and Taliban militants, and they were in U.S. sight, they would take them out.

Reading between the lines, it is significant that McCain’s constant criticism of Obama’s stance on taking out militant targets in safe havens equated to “attacking Pakistan.” During the debate, Obama made no mention of an attack on Pakistan’s sovereignty, on its people, or on the government. He asserted that U.S. attacks on militant targets would only occur if actionable intelligence existed and the Pakistani government was unwilling to cooperate. Due to high-profile attacks, like the recent Marriott Hotel bombing, it is increasingly within Islamabad’s national interest to counter this militant threat; not to appease U.S. demands, but rather to protect its own civilians and take ownership of the war at hand.

Regardless of political posturing, the U.S. will always act according to its national security interests. If Coalition forces are being killed by militants in cross-border attacks, it inherently threatens U.S. security; that would be true for any country. The difference in this presidential election is that Obama openly acknowleges this reality, while McCain merely chooses to equate it to an attack on Pakistani sovereignty. Ultimately, however, there isn’t an easy answer to this issue, and the next president will be forced to respond to the realities on the ground. Therefore, it may come down to how they tend to respond to major issues rather than their current political stances - will they assess the situation from all sides and exhaust all options before deciding on a strategy? Or will they make a rash decision because they believe they “must not blink” when it comes to matters of national security? For the sake of Pakistan, I pray that it’s the former rather than the latter. [Image from the Washington Post]

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Today, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari met VP Republican candidate Sarah Palin in New York City. According to CNN, who called the meeting “an eyebrow raising exchange,” Zardari reportedly called Palin, “gorgeous.” The news agency reported,

On entering a room filled with several Pakistani officials Wednesday, Palin was immediately greeted by Sherry Rehman, the country’s information minister. “And how does one keep looking that good when one is that busy?” Rehman asked Palin, drawing friendly laughter from the room.

When Zardari shook her hand, he reportedly called her gorgeous, and then said, “Now I know why the whole of America is crazy about you.” CNN reported, “A handler from Zardari’s entourage then told the two politicians to keep shaking hands for the cameras. ‘If he’s insisting, I might hug,’ Zardari said. Palin smiled politely in response.”

When a reporter at the Zardari meeting asked about her day meeting with foreign officials, she said, “It’s going great…These meetings are very informative and helpful, and a lot of good people sharing appreciation for America.”

Translation: There was more grease in that meeting than on an offshore oil rig.

AZ, I think calling Palin “gorgeous” and trying to hug her during an official meeting before the press may not be the best way to impress the all-too-trigger-happy vice presidential hopeful. Just a thought. [Image from the NY Times]

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The Marriott Hotel bombing last Saturday was an immense tragedy for the people of Pakistan, particularly those from Islamabad. The tragedy is perhaps more telling when we take into account the innocent civilians killed and injured by the blast. CHUP interviewed four people from Islamabad on their reactions to the bombing, in order to provide a more humanized portrayal of the bombing and its aftermath:

At around 8 pm on Saturday evening, September 20, 2008, an enormous truck bomb went off at the gates of the Marriott, a hotel located in the center of Islamabad, near the presidency building, prime minister’s office, and the parliament. The blast occurred while many people were still enjoying iftaar, after just breaking their fast. Sajid, an IT executive in Islamabad, said he was on his way home after Maghreb prayer when he heard about the blast. He said, “I was shocked and rushed home to see the breaking news headline, “A dreadful blast heard near Marriott Hotel” on a local television channel.”

Izza, a program support specialist for ED-LINKS, heard her living room window rattle. She told CHUP, “From my memory of the bombing at the Danish Embassy a few months ago, I knew that the rattling was caused by an explosion. Within minutes, local news channels started speculating the origin of the blast. The landline and my cell phone started ringing with calls from concerned friends and family. Cell phone networks started getting congested.  Panic flooded the city.”  An Islamabad-based lawyer, [who wished to remain anonymous] was actually at home getting ready to leave for the Marriott when she heard the loud blast. She recalled, “Some people were taking my husband and I out for dinner and we were told to be there by 8pm sharp. The only reason we are alive or uninjured today is because my husband changed the plan from 8pm to 8.30pm about an hour earlier.”

Not long after the blast occurred, local media outlets were providing real-time coverage of the incident. Pakistanis stayed riveted to their television sets for subsequent developments. Sajid noted his shock was quickly replaced by “concern for the safety of the poor, unsuspecting security guards and drivers who always bear the brunt of such attacks.” Izza related her thoughts on watching the fire spread throughout the hotel, noting, “We didn’t expect to see the fire spread slowly but confidently to the rooftop, to one room, to two rooms, and then throughout the hotel.  I don’t know if I can explain what I felt: a certain sense of helplessness and dread looking at people wave and shout for help from the windows of the sixth floor, looking at the injured being carried out, looking at cars melting in the parking lot, and praying I didn’t see anyone I knew.”

A teacher in the capital [who also asked to remain anonymous] told CHUP, “I kept looking at the fire and thinking why is it out of control? Why aren’t the fire trucks here? It just kept getting bigger and bigger. I really got worried. There were people in the windows, and I kept thinking, “The Marriott is not a 50-storied building, surely these people can be saved.” The aforementioned lawyer was also horrified by the images of people in the hotel’s windows, and said it reminded her “momentarily of the people trapped in the Twin Towers on September 11.” She added, “What made one feel especially helpless is the fact that we have practically no emergency services. A fire engine took 45 minutes to arrive because it was coming from Rawalpindi. I felt that more people could have been saved had we had proper emergency services.”

Izza echoed, “Pakistan is a country under siege.  Explosions, suicide attacks and bomb threats are now routine—yet we do not have a disaster management plan.  The capital city of the country at the heart of the war on terror does not have a strategy or the means to deal with the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Why were firefighters helplessly watching on the outside, unable to provide rescue while the building slowly went up in flames?  Why were the poor guards at the barrier not equipped to put out the fire when the truck went up in flames?”

Several hours after the blast, news agencies cited officials who said that between 30 and 40 people were killed in the blast, and at least 200 were injured. A day later, the death toll increased further, with reports finalizing that 57 people died in the bombing, and about 250 were injured. The Marriott Hotel had been largely demolished by the fire, a far cry from the vibrant hotel that had once housed some of the capital’s most popular restaurants. Although officials have not yet confirmed who perpetrated the attack, fingers have been pointed at Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Many Pakistanis are outraged at the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan. The aforementioned teacher asserted, “I am very, very angry. I am upset, hurt, and angry…My beautiful country has changed. It hasn’t gone? Has it?”   The lawyer CHUP interviewed expressed similar sentiments, asserting, “I am appalled and angry at this criminal act especially as the perpetrators claim to be doing this in the name Islam. This is not Islam. This is blasphemy.”  Sajid echoed, “Terrorism is no longer confined to the borders of Pakistan… it is a pure disgrace to mankind; killing innocent people cannot be jihad. Terrorism has spread to all corners of the country.” The teacher also criticized the government’s reaction to the bombing, and, after hearing the “hurried, botched-up address by the president [Zardari]”  before his flight to the United States, felt like screaming, “Don’t go! Stay and pick up the pieces! Console us. Tell us something.”

As news coverage of the blast begins to subside, we are left remembering the victims of the attack. Izza recalled, “The hotel’s many restaurants, its gym, its salons and several other facilities make it one of Islamabad’s central attractions—its guards and doormen, its valets, its staff, were all people we knew well and exchanged greetings with each time we visited.” The security guards, in the final moments of their lives, “became heroes,” she noted, “showing commendable bravery,” as they attempted to put the blazing fire out. The lawyer will also remember those who worked at the hotel, saying, “I am devastated when I think about those two nice men in red coats who always used to open the door for me when I went to the Marriott… I have been informed that they were killed in the blast. So were many others all of whom I knew by their friendly faces and to all of whom I used to say ‘Salaam’ as I went through the lobby. I also think about the men, women and children who were innocently breaking their fast at the Marriott.”

Although bombings have been a frequent occurrence throughout Pakistan, large-scale attacks in main cities are significant because of the impact they have on your average citizen. They are a reality check; showing Pakistanis that bombings are no longer just occurring in the tribal areas, but at their front door. The tragedy is further humanized by the victims that many knew on a personal basis. The Marriott Hotel bombing  should be the final wake-up call for both our government and for the Pakistani people, who had yet to fully embrace the war against militancy as “their war.” If anyone had doubts before, they were largely dismissed in the aftermath of Saturday’s horrific tragedy.

If you would like to donate your time or money to help rehabilitate those injured in the blast or to the families of the victims, please visit the blog for The Citizens’ Trust for Victims of Terror.

You can also donate funds to help families of the Marriott guards killed in the blast via Global Giving, click here for more information.

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According to several media outlets on Monday, an unknown militant group, Fidaeen-e-Islam, [despite some media outlets noting it translated to, "Partisans of Islam," it actually translates to "Freedom Fighters of Islam" or the "Guerillas of Islam"], claimed responsibility for Saturday’s Marriott Hotel attack, [see related CHUP post for coverage] which killed 57 people and wounded more than 250. Several media outlets, including CNN, Dawn, and AAJ Television reported that a spokesman for the group contacted Al-Arabiya Television to announce their involvement. However, GEO Television reported that they had also received a call from the organization, adding:

In a videotaped message in English language forwarded to Geo News after the telephone call, which is being kept confidential by Geo in the best national interest, the group has also made many other demands from the government.

So far, news agencies have not been able to authenticate the message, and Dawn noted that “no one from the government, especially the interior ministry has commented on it officially.” However, reported the news agency, “a senior official of the ministry, who did not wish to be named, told Dawn that intelligence agencies were investigating the call received by the media organizations.” So far, they have reportedly been able to confirm that the call came from within Pakistan, but not from anywhere inside Islamabad.

In the recording, the group said 250 U.S. Marines and other U.S. and NATO officials were inside the hotel at the time of the attack. The group also noted that they regretted the attack, but said it was necessary to press its demands, including an end to U.S.-Pakistani joint efforts and a halt to all military operations in Pakistan’s tribal regions, reported CNN.

Until the tape can be verified, we should take news of such claims with a grain of salt, particularly since it is often in the interest of more obscure militant organizations to falsely claim responsibility for attacks to increase their notoriety. While the Fidaeen-e-Islam (FI) is a terrorist organization, it is still unknown whether it possesses any links with the Tehreek-e-Taliban or Al Qaeda. Although the head of Pakistan’s Interior Ministry Rehman Malik has said the government has not yet arrested any suspects, he told reporters that suspicion is falling on militants in the tribal areas. CNN cited the official, who said yesterday, “I am not in a position to tell you who has done it, but (in) all the previous investigations, all the roads have gone to South Waziristan.” The news agency added, South Waziristan is one of seven agencies of Pakistan’s tribal areas where Taliban and al Qaeda militants are active. However, the Associated Press has reported that Amir Mohammad, an aide to leader of the Pakistani Taliban Beitullah Mehsud, said he shared the country’s grief and was not involved. Ultimately, speculation may be abound, but the government has yet to verify anything related to who perpetrated Saturday’s devastating attack.

Other conflicting reports surrounding the bombing have also garnered significant media attention. Earlier on Monday, Rehman Malik told reporters that Pakistan’s president, prime minister and other leaders had planned to dine at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on Saturday night. However, the dinner plans were changed last minute, when President Zardari asked to move the event to the PM compound. ARY Television quoted Malik, who spoke to the media during the service where the body of the Czech Republic envoy [killed in Saturday's attack] was handed over to country officials. He said, “At the eleventh hour, the president and prime minister decided that the venue would be the prime minister’s house. It saved the entire leadership.”

CNN reported that the revelation raised questions “as to how much the government knew about the planned attack, which involved a construction truck with more than 600 kg (1,300 pounds) of explosives.” Despite the announcement, Marriott’s owner, Sadruddin Hashwani, denied the government had made reservations at the hotel that night. According to Dawn, he stated, “I have checked from the management and the hotel administration, no booking had been made for an official dinner on that day.” CNN cited a Pakistani senator, Javed Ashraf Qazi, who told the news agency he was invited to the dinner “but it was always scheduled to be at the prime minister’s office.”

In the aftermath of Saturday’s tragedy, it is increasingly clear that very little has been verified or confirmed. What is known is that the gravity of the security situation can no longer be ignored by the Pakistani government or the Pakistani people. The tragedy of Saturday’s bombing lies in the numbers of innocent civilians that were killed or injured – not just those dining during iftar, or the foreigners present, but also the drivers, the security guards, the doormen, and the hotel workers. Many of those people were the face of the Marriott Hotel that most of us came to know over the years. Regardless whether the Marriott is rebuilt in three months or three years, we will always remember them.

Also: Shaheryar Mirza, the author of yesterday’s post, “Making Ourselves Accountable,” appeared on BBC World’s Have Your Say, a discussion on U.S. involvement in Pakistan. To listen to the show, click here, and download the podcast for 22 September 08, entitled, “The World’s Policeman.”

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Saturday’s bomb blast at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad was devastating, [see related CHUP post], with media outlets now reporting that at least 40 were killed and hundreds were injured. Below, Shaheryar Mirza, a freelance journalist from Rawalpindi, Pakistan who recently completed his masters degree in journalism, comments on the significance of such an attack and the ramifications it holds for Pakistan:

Another blast to add to the string of chaos that has engulfed Pakistan in recent months. The blast at the Marriott is being coined, “Pakistan’s 9/11.” Is this finally an admission that Pakistan is caught up in a war that it cannot pawn off as “America’s war?”

On the eve of President Zardari‘s visit to New York, this blast serves as a stark reminder that the Pakistani government is on the losing end of a war which is tearing apart the very fabric of Pakistani society. Our society, government, and law enforcement’s complacence is to blame for these tragic events. It may be an individual militant who pulled the trigger, but it is ultimately the state and society as a whole which has given the extremists the power that can bring a city to its knees.

Intelligence warned that four to five suicide bombers were on the loose in the capital, but that still did not deter the militants’ aims. Is the resolve of the militants stronger than our government and law enforcement’s resolve? To be fair, it is extremely hard to prevent these kinds of bombings. But in the capital of the nation, a dump truck laden with several hundred kilograms of explosives was allowed to breach one of the most heavily guarded cordons in Islamabad. Surely someone must be held accountable. Driving from Rawalpindi to Islamabad, one encounters so many police checkpoints that it is hard to imagine that nobody questioned why a dump truck was making its way to the Marriott. It may be safe to assume that that road is not the typical trucker’s route.

Many ministers have now come out on news channels asserting, “We won’t be scared or deterred by these attacks” and other statements to that effect. They go on to state that they will bring those to blame to justice. Those accountable for this tragedy are not only the ones hiding in the Frontier and Balochistan but they are also those in plain sight who have ignored the rise of extremism in our country.

Occasionally sending in the military to fight militants is not alone going to solve the problem. Is the government still planning on registering all the madrassas and checking their curricula? Granted, not every madrassa is breeding young extremists, but a very significant number are. Is the government ignorant of where the funding is coming for these Wahhabi-styled madrassas? Are they completely incapable of keeping a check on these schools, or are they just unwilling? One cannot blame madrassas for everything that happens, but the fact remains that some of the blame lies with them. And if they run rampant as they do these days, then groups like Al Qaeda won’t even need to recruit people because they are being bred free of charge. Keeping the madrassas in check is the government’s responsibility and every successive government since Zia’s time has failed in doing so. Who will hold our government accountable?

This is where civil society comes in. Our judiciary is ready to protest to the hilt when its power has been compromised, but are they ready to stand up when the law of the land is compromised by militants on a daily basis? The educated public in the cities line up to protest America’s war in Iraq but do we see them standing up and protesting the militant’s war on our own nation?

Our citizens and government officials are angered when they see America crossing over into Pakistan to fight militants. The U.S. apparently comprises Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty with these cross-border incursions. The question is, then, what sovereignty are they referring to? The Frontier and Balochistan have become the preferred destination for extremists from around the world. Why aren’t the government and public up in arms about Pakistan’s sovereignty when it is being breached by extremists? Militants from around the world and within Pakistan are launching a war against the nation of Pakistan and we seem to be concerned about America compromising our territorial integrity to fight the very people who are destabilizing our own country. It seems counter-intuitive. Nobody is suggesting that America be given free rein in our territory but our own government has completely failed in securing our tribal areas.

The ISI is completely without accountability to the people of Pakistan and have aims which run contrary to the aims of the average Pakistani. Esteemed journalists like Ahmed Rashid have suggested time and again that the military and the ISI have kept the Taliban alive to serve as a tool against India. And he goes on to rightfully state that now they are out of the ISI’s control. The fact remains that the Taliban and its militant guests from around the world are fighting a war against Pakistan, not India.

The ISI needs to re-evaluate its support of the Taliban if the country is to stabilize the border regions. The government needs to bring some accountability to the ISI. The public needs to bring accountability to the government by standing up and making it known that the fight against extremism is our own war and no one else’s. It’s unfortunate to say, but perhaps an attack of this nature will lead people to lose any sympathy they had for the extremists. Maybe the government will aggressively tackle the causes of and sources of extremism. Making deals with the Taliban has proven to be making a deal with the devil.

One can go on endlessly about how extremism of this sort is a result of American foreign policy in the Muslim world, but that is only part of the equation. If this sort of extremism is retaliation to the West, as Muslims we should still hold our fellow Muslims accountable for reacting with such extreme violence. There is no justification for the actions of the extremists and the argument that it is America’s fault is a tired and outdated notion. American policies may have ignited the flames but we are fanning the flames by not holding our own people accountable for perpetuating the violence. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Attacking the Marriott in Islamabad has nothing to do with America’s policies in the Middle East.

Pakistan teeters on the brink in plain view and it is becoming impossible to sweep it under the rug. Hopefully our government will now treat this is our own war and actually start protecting its citizens against a war which is home-grown. None of this will happen until Pakistanis and the government are ready to admit that Islamic extremism is breeding like wildfire in our own country and it is a result of our own complacence.

CHUP welcomes your thoughts on this incident. If you would like to contribute a guest post on the Islamabad bomb blast, or related issues, please email changinguppakistan[at]gmail.com with your piece, name, and affiliation.

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Wire services reported that there was a bomb blast outside the Marriott hotel in the nation’s capital of Islamabad today. The Associated Press reported, “A huge explosion ripped through part of the heavily guarded Marriott Hotel in Pakistan’s capital on Saturday. Many people, including foreigners, were seen running out, some of them stained with blood.” Reuters cited a “senior police official,” who said, “The explosion happened as a car reached the barricade outside the hotel.” No group has claimed responsibility for the incident, although wire services have indicated that it may have been a suicide attack. A recently updated AP piece cited hospital official Raja Ejaz, who said at least two people were killed, while 25 were wounded.

UPDATE [1059 EST]: As expected, news agencies are reporting varying numbers of casualties. Dawn News reportedly confirmed that at least 25 died in the attack. The news agency added, “Fifteen of dead are reportedly at the Pims hospital in Islamabad.” Although both BBC News and Geo TV reported similar numbers to Dawn, ARY Television reported a much higher casualty count, noting that at least 40 people were killed, and a 100 were injured. The BBC’s Barbara Plett who is at the scene says that the entire front section of the Marriott Hotel has been blown out and wreckage is everywhere. [Image from AFP]

UPDATE [1130 EST]: Dawn News is now reporting that 30 people are dead from the Marriott blast, adding that a Danish diplomat and three US citizens are among the injured. BBC News is reporting that 40 people have been killed, and BBC correspondent Plett reported that “about two-thirds of the 290-room hotel is on fire, and the wounded and dead are still being brought out, on stretchers or wrapped in sheets.” CNN, in its coverage, reported, “The blast caused a natural gas leak that set the Marriott Hotel on fire.”

Several news outlets are framing the blast in light of President Zardari‘s Parliament address, which happened two hours before the incident. According to the BBC, “In his first speech to MPs since he replaced Pervez Musharraf in August, he vowed instead to ‘root out terrorism and extremism wherever and whenever they may rear their ugly heads.’”

UPDATE 1145 [EST]: News reports are saying people are still inside the hotel and people have indicated the hotel is in danger of collapsing. A recently updated AP wire reported, “The blast left a vast crater, some 30 feet deep in front of the main building, where flames poured from the windows and rescuers ferried bloodied bodies from the gutted building. Witnesses and officials said a large truck had rammed the high metal gate of the hotel at about 8 p.m., when the restaurants would have been packed with diners, including Muslims breaking the Ramadan fast.”

UPDATE 1225 [EST]: News agencies are still reporting similar casualty numbers, [see above], but CNN reported that at least 200 were injured in the attack. The death toll is expected to rise as reports continue to come in. According to GEO News, “A rescue operation is underway to bring out the people trapped inside the hotel.” Although media outlets are indicating that foreigners are among those killed in the blast, CNN reported, “Most of the dead appeared to be drivers who were waiting with their cars outside the hotel, and hotel staff — most of them security guards.” [Image below from Dawn News]

UPDATE 1250 [EST]: AAJ Television reported the bomb blast brought down the ceiling in a banquet room where there were about 200 to 300 people at a meal to break the fast during the holy month of Ramazan. Imtiaz Gul was reportedly one of these people and told news agencies, “We just ran for cover, I could see a lot of injured people lying around me.” Reuters cited statements by the hotel’s owner, Sadruddin Hashwani, who said the vehicle carrying the bomb “was stopped at the front barrier and was being checked by guards after a bomb-sniffing dog raised the alarm.” He told reporters, “The guard dog alerted them and when they started searching the vehicle the man blew himself up.” News channels are currently indicating the explosion of first the smaller car, followed by a “dumper truck” that held “packaging material” behind the car, [CHUP will follow up on those details.]

UPDATE 1340 [EST]: The BBC’s Barbara Plett says the emergency services have been unable to reach the upper floors of the hotel, where more people are feared to be trapped. There are continuing fears that the hotel will collapse. The NY Times quoted a guard at the Marriott, Amjad Ali Khan, who, when asked who he thought perpetrated the blast, responded, “They are terrorists…They threatened a few days ago. We heard there were four to five suicide bombers on the loose.” [Image below from the BBC]

UPDATE 1821 [EST]: Interior Ministry spokesman Rehman Malik confirmed the above police official’s statement, [see above] telling reporters “the government had received word of a possible attack near the parliamentary offices.” Dawn quoted him saying, “We had intelligence reports two days ago that some incident might take place.” The Associated Press cited statements by Senior Police Official Asghar Raza Gardaizi, who said the blast, which reverberated throughout Islamabad, was caused by more than 2,204 pounds (1,000 kilograms) of explosives.” A few hours after the attack, President Zardari addressed the nation on television, stating, “My heart cries tears of blood, I can understand your pain, I want to ask you to turn this pain into your strength.” CNN reported that Zardari described extremism as “a cancer, which we will finish,” adding, “In the holy month of Ramadan, no Muslim can act in this way, these people are not Muslims…I appeal to all democratic nations to help us get rid of this menace.”

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Pakistan Addresses its Economy

The U.S. financial crisis has been a major story in the Western press this week. Of course, this story is merely a part of the overarching global crisis affecting the international community. On Friday, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) “told President Zardari that Pakistan’s economy is facing severe challenges on twin deficits (fiscal and current account) and Islamabad would have to tighten its belt to reduce expenditures as well as raising interest rates to curtail the sky-rocketing inflation,” reported The News. Zardari told reporters the same day, “The message is clear that without declaring economy as the priority number one, Pakistan cannot overcome the existing economic challenges.”

Yesterday, Pakistan’s finance minister Naveed Qamar unveiled a policy package to restore economic stability to the country, also ruling out seeking assistance from the IMF. According to the Daily Times, “The package includes elimination of subsidies, reduction in development expenditures, financing through non-inflationary instruments and arranging foreign exchange through privatization of oil, gas and power sector entities.” Although Qamar stated that Pakistan would not seek the IMF’s assistance, Dawn reported that he “quickly added that international financial institutions, including the IMF, could monitor the implementation of the package.” Both Dawn and the Daily Times quoted Qamar, who stated during Friday’s press conference, “I can safely announce today … we have eliminated the entire fuel subsidy and there is no additional subsidy today that is going out of the budget to subsidize fuel.” According to State Bank Governor Dr. Shamshad Akhtar, the immediate target of the package “was to increase foreign exchange reserves to provide an import cover two to three months.”

Although the current security situation and strained U.S.-Pakistan relations has garnered major press attention in recent weeks, the state of Pakistan’s economy is also a fundamental concern. According to Ahmed Rashid who wrote a recent analysis for the BBC, “Pakistanis… face runaway inflation of over 25% and an economy in virtual meltdown as foreign exchange reserves dwindle and industry grinds to a halt.” According to a Bloomberg piece last week [also see related CHUP article],

International investors have fled a stock exchange that has nearly halved in value this year, the second-worst performance in Asia after China, as state subsidies for food and fuel and record military spending widened the budget deficit to a 10-year high.

The country is also facing major power shortages. According to The Nation, “officials say there is a power deficit of up to 4,000 megawatt.” As a result of this issue, Pakistani PM Gilani held a meeting with senior officials on Friday to discuss the possibility of buying nuclear plants. According to Dawn, Pakistan currently has two nuclear power plants – one built in 1972 with a capacity of 137 megawatts, while the other, built in 1999 with the help of China, has 372 megawatts. China is reportedly helping Pakistan build a third power plant. The purchase of further power plants would therefore help the country further tackle these growing energy shortages. President Zardari will address Pakistan’s Parliament for the first time on Saturday, and will  reportedly unveil the government’s economic policy as well as its security plan.

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Reminder: Pakistani Journalists’ Event!!

Just a reminder that today’s Woodrow Wilson Center event with five visiting Pakistani journalists will be at 3:30 – 5:30 pm [EST] TODAY, [see past post for more details]. The event will also be webcast live, please click here for the live streaming video at the time of the event.

I can assure you that won’t want to miss out!

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