My presence was conspicuous as one of the few Christians among 1,500 dining Muslims in a country that harbors deep reservations with the American-led “global war on terror.” Nonetheless I felt welcome at this sprawling mountain-top restaurant overlooking the moonlit capital of Pakistan. And though the other guests eyed me with curiosity, there were smiles and waves all around.
A dark contrast to this hopeful scene occurred only 24 hours later when my hotel in downtown Islamabad was attacked by terrorists and set ablaze. The deadly inferno was the result of an enormous 1,350-pound truck bomb that took the lives of two U.S. servicemen, the Czech ambassador to Pakistan and 50 others, most of them Muslims ending another day of fasting with family and friends.
Before sunrise that morning, I filmed the front security gate of the Marriott Hotel from an open window in my room to capture the Muslim call to prayer as it played out over the neighborhoods of Islamabad. Thankfully I left the hotel only hours before the attack to visit the city of Peshawar and interview people privy to the many forces behind violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
What I learned in Peshawar, and from the attack on the Marriott Hotel, gave me a first-person view of the fighting and double-dealing that will perpetuate this cycle of violence. There is little real cooperation between Islamabad and Washington against extremists in Pakistan. In its place is a poorly choreographed and ungainly dance that hardly masks the mistrust, convoluted power structures and competing goals that retard the bilateral relationship.
Time and again, cautious sources relayed inside stories - undoubtedly mixed with rumor and conspiracy theories - of the innumerable missteps, betrayals and subterfuge marking the conflict along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and the effort to settle it. High tensions were notable over U.S. incursions into Pakistan by unmanned Predator aircraft and Special Operations teams in the week prior to the bombing. The freshly minted Pakistani civilian government loudly postured to a domestic audience that American actions were intolerable and that the new government would “protect Pakistan’s sovereignty at all costs.”
The reality of an $11 billion pipeline of American aid since Sept. 11, 2001, means these operations will continue without significant resistance. Pakistan, though, is genuinely asserting itself in the face of an uncomfortably close U.S.-India relationship. This is exacerbated by Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s hearty engagement of New Delhi. But as a donor-dependent country, which spends at least 40 percent of its budget on the military, Pakistan remains highly reliant on American assistance.
Working at cross-purposes to the United States, Saudi Arabian charities lend a hand too by funding private schools (madrassas), many of which turn out young men eager to fight U.S. and other Western forces.
With 40 percent of U.S. and NATO supplies for Afghanistan transiting Pakistan’s precarious tribal areas, it is no wonder that American leaders handle Islamabad with care. Pakistan, meanwhile, receives $1 million per day in road tolls. Neither side would like to see these strategic lines of communication severed. These convoys, carrying food and other material, are often raided with their wares ending up in Peshawar’s sprawling markets alongside a variety of weapons. The source of this particular information, a university professor in Peshawar no less, claimed he had 75 rocket-propelled grenades and several AK-47 assault rifles in his own home. These weapons are considered ornaments - Pakistani men feel naked without them.
The need for American operations inside Pakistan’s borders - in order to kill al Qaeda, Taliban and foreign fighters who plan and launch attacks in Afghanistan - is clear evidence that Pakistan is unable and/or unwilling to stop these militants. Tribal figures, journalists, academics and government officials - understandably operating with misinformation, rumor and bias - acknowledged the obvious: Many militants are given a free hand to conduct their operations with Pakistani support or acquiescence.
There are even claims that the United States supports resistance fighters in the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan as part of a larger “chess game” designed to harass China as it pursues its interests in the port city of Gwadar.
Baluchis living in Iran also allegedly provide intelligence to the United States, further cementing this supposed relationship. All sources described motivations and goals that stretch beyond the geography and stated scope of the Afghan conflict as the basis for these allegations. The fighting in Afghanistan, they insist, is merely a sideshow of proxy battles in a larger effort by the United States, Russia, India and China to cement influence across Central and South Asia.
In the face of all the carnage, you might think officials are working toward a solution. But time and again, people across Pakistan noted the “jihad economy” of narcotics and arms-trafficking, kidnap and ransom, arms manufacturing, extortion and foreign aid is more profitable than a peacetime economy. Combine this with Pakistan’s longstanding goal of keeping Afghanistan off-balance, friendly, and pliable as a defensive sanctuary in the event of a fourth major war with India, and you can see that there is little hope of progress. The long-term threat from India is one which Pakistanis know far outlasts the staying power of the United States - it is but one angle of the larger game being played out on the Pakistani-Afghan border.
Meanwhile, Pakistani families will continue to pay the price for this, even while seated peacefully for a holiday dinner.
Thomas M. Sanderson, deputy director of transnational threats at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is directing an open-source counterterrorism project in Southeast Asia. He has conducted more than 100 interviews abroad this year on terrorism, corruption and narcotics trafficking across 15 countries.