ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | A large advertisement on the front page of a major Pakistani newspaper recently featured an image of the Marriott hotel, ablaze in the night after last month’s suicide truck bombing.
“This war is OUR war,” screamed the headline, asking why those responsible for the attack that killed 60 people “should be allowed to overwhelm a nation.”
The media campaign reflects a growing crisis of confidence among Pakistanis. They fear more militant violence and are also increasingly uneasy about an alliance with the United States that appears to be spurring the attacks. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 64 percent of Pakistanis say the United States is the greatest threat facing the nation.
“The public is confused and demoralized,” said Ayaz Amir, a leading political columnist. “They don’t like what the Taliban is doing, don’t like what the U.S. is doing, and there is not a clear sense of direction from the new leadership. No solution is in sight.”
In an indication of the gravity of the situation in both Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, met Thursday in the military garrison town of Rawalpindi with Pakistan’s armed forces chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, and his Afghan counterpart, Gen. Bismullah Khan. It was the first such three-way meeting since U.S. ground forces raided Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, an area that remains a sanctuary for the Taliban and al Qaeda and may host Osama bin Laden. The Sept. 3 raid inflamed Pakistani opinion.
Last week, President Asif Ali Zardari summoned Pakistani lawmakers and top security officials to a rare, closed-door session to discuss the situation in the tribal areas. The Zardari government hopes to devise a counterterrorism strategy that will affirm the primacy of a civilian government that followed nine years of military rule in February.
“The ongoing briefing session … is a step towards strengthening the democratic system as it is aimed at taking public representatives on board on the most important challenge the country is currently facing,” Information Minister Sherry Rehman told reporters last week. “Public ownership of the war” is critical, she said.
However, several lawmakers said afterward that the briefing lacked depth and diagnosis, especially on the terms of engagement with the United States.
Meanwhile, militants appear capable of striking with impunity.
Hours before Mrs. Rehman spoke, four people were injured when a suicide car bomber attacked a police complex in a high-security zone on the outskirts of the capital.
The following afternoon, at least 60 people were killed when another suicide bomber plowed an explosives-laden pickup truck into a meeting of tribal elders in Orakzai tribal agency. The slain leaders had raised a local militia, or lashkar, to combat the Taliban’s sudden rise in the area, and reportedly were preparing to attack a new militant base.
Militants “want to show that there is no safe place … trying to show their power and influence events in every nook and corner,” said Talat Masood, a security analyst and retired general who served as defense minister from 1988 to 1990.
The violence has coincided with an escalating U.S. campaign against sanctuaries for those who have attacked NATO-led forces in Afghanistan. U.S. forces also are trying to capture or kill bin Laden before President Bush leaves office. Since mid-August, the U.S. military has carried out at least 12 missile attacks and exchanged gunfire on at least one occasion with Pakistani troops.
“There is a definite link between increasing American strikes on Pakistani soil and suicide attacks,” said Asadullah Ghalib, a columnist for the Express, an Urdu national daily. “The bombers have made their demands clear: They don’t want U.S. or Pakistani forces to conduct operations in our country.”