Thursday, October 16, 2008

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.

Missile strike, suicide attack kill 5 in Pakistan

“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.”

The Zardari government has protested the U.S. attacks while appearing to condone air strikes by unmanned craft. It also has mounted its own two-month-old offensive into the northwestern Bajaur region. Officials say the offensive has killed about 1,000 insurgents.

Defense analyst Shireen Mazari said the only way for Pakistan to curb suicide bombings is by distancing itself from the United States.

“Pakistan must unshackle itself from the U.S. agenda,” Miss Mazari wrote in a report for the Islamabad-based Institute for Strategic Studies.

However, political analyst Rasool Baksh Raees said Mr. Zardari has little choice but to retain an alliance with the United States that has brought Pakistan $10 billion in aid since the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We don’t have a lot of options,” Mr. Raees said.

The upswing in suicide attacks is impacting life throughout the country.

In Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city, Amina Saad, 28, was sitting in a restaurant when her husband called and urged her to leave and for her driver to take her home on side roads.

“I can’t believe this,” said Mrs. Saad, who lives in the U.S. and is in Pakistan on vacation. “We can’t even have lunch in peace.”

In Islamabad, gloom has taken hold since the Marriott bombing. Grand boulevards are choked by concrete barricades and police checkpoints.Helicopter gunships fly above ministries and U.S. diplomats have been forbidden to stay at city hotels.

An already slumping service industry is among many in economic free fall. Inflation has climbed to a 30-year peak rate of 25 percent, plunging the Pakistani rupee to a new low versus a weak dollar.

Economic woes are compounded by higher taxes and oil prices, frequent power outages and a shortage of foreign exchange reserves that have dropped 67 percent over the past year, according to Standard and Poor’s, the financial services company.

Traditional benefactors have kept their distance, though some expect a lifeline from the United States to stave off a total collapse that would further destabilize a region on the brink.

Economic aid would be more effective, a number of lawmakers and analysts say, than unilateral U.S. military operations.

“U.S. policies right now are not just making things worse, they are making our work impossible,” said Khurshid Ahmad, a senator from the Jaamat-e-Islami party, a conservative Muslim group. “They are an insult, as well as an injury, and could destroy our friendship.”

• Ayesha Akram reported from Lahore.

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