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Archive for September 20th, 2008

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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