Monday, September 22, 2008
The Marriottt in Islamabad is no more. This is a reality that many are still finding it hard to come to terms with. The hotel, where wedding guests assembled, where friends chatted, where journalists covering key events gathered, where business deals were struck and from where tourists ventured out to explore Pakistan has been converted into a charred ruin. The last ‘Iftaris’ taking place at it turned into a dark nightmare as a suicide bomber rammed a truck loaded with explosives into its entrance. At least 60 people have died; more than 300 injured. The precise toll is still impossible to determine with bodies still being pulled out from rooms engulfed by an inferno unleashed by the blast.
Even in a nation that has become resilient to shock and accustomed to terrorist violence, the attack has created horror. It is being described as the worst suicide bombing yet to take place in the country - Pakistan’s very own 9/11. The bomber is believed to have used 1000 kilograms of high-quality explosives in the attack. There can be no doubt about his intentions. The act has proven too that terrorism is an evil that Pakistan must fight. It is not a war that involves the US, or other powers. It directly affects each and every one of us; we must therefore fight it. The people who died are almost all Pakistanis. Most among them are poor security guards, drivers, waiters, hotel staff - caught as the explosion ripped through the building. Those who killed them are too Pakistanis. They are not aliens, not outsiders. It is our flawed policies that have allowed them to grow and to develop the maddened mindsets of hatred that spurs their actions. It is senseless to point fingers elsewhere. We must wake up to the fact that these people come from amongst us; they target venues within the country and they kill their own countrymen.
It is time we accepted this war is our own. There must be no ambiguity about this. The Marriott, for many, was the face of Islamabad. Its destruction is a reminder of the scale of the threat we face. No one in the country is safe, no place secure.
The opinions we still hear everywhere, in roadside cafes, in offices - and among the country’s establishment - that the militants who have entrenched themselves in northern areas are ‘good’ people, that force should not be used against them - is one reason why we today face such high levels of peril. Pakistan is now rated as the most dangerous place in the world. All those who have seen the charred graveyard of vehicles, of trees torn apart, of ash covering green belts, of people writhing in hospital beds, will not disagree with this assessment. Yet the fact that so many still believe the forces capable of the mayhem we saw in Islamabad on Saturday deserve some kind of protection, that they deserve to be regarded as men of honour with whom dialogue is possible, explains why they have so far proved invincible. Such thinking needs to change. There must be a consensus across society about the need to act with unity and determination to save what still remains of our wounded country. We must try to breathe life back into it. As inevitably happens after any major incident, rumours, theories, conjecture about why the Marriott was targeted will continue to circulate. There has been vague talk of US nationals being present, of equipment being moved in. This is irrelevant. It is senseless to attempt to decipher the motives driving killers to acts of evil. What is important is to find a way to vanquish them. The President, in the immediate aftermath of the blast, has spoken of the need to turn sorrow into strength, to face the situation with courage. The words express the right sentiments. What is crucial is to find the means to act on them and to ensure that everyone in circles of decision-making is working towards the same goal. The civilian and military government must ensure cooperation and combined planning towards this end.
There are now several key challenges ahead. They go beyond the question of immediate arrests or an investigation of the blast itself.
These are of course important, but we need to look further and draw up a plan of action that in time will help us build a country where people are safe and where the terror that lurks everywhere in Islamabad and indeed other cities does not forever haunt us. How can this be done? Indeed can it now be achieved at all? These are questions we must face up to. Too much time has already been lost. The actions being contemplated today should have come years, perhaps, decades sooner. After all, suicide bombings were, even five years ago, almost unknown in the country. We must ask ourselves how we so rapidly descended in the abyss of violence we face today. In 2003, 189 people in the country died in terrorist related incidents. In 2007 this figure stood at over 3,500. In 2002, 20 died in two suicide attacks.
For 2008 the figure already stands at over 300. Who knows what the toll will be by the time the year reaches its bloody end. An understanding of how this happened, and why it was allowed to happen, is crucial to developing a strategy to deal with the ghastly realty we face.
But there are ways to try and overcome terror, provided there is will, and commitment and a shared vision. The measures that are required include an improvement in security and the training of personnel at checkposts. In Iraq, such an enhancement in their skills has helped bring down the number of bombings and the number of deaths. But far more is needed than mere security. The fact is that today, thousands of persons recruited through the years for ‘jihad’ by militant outfits - with or without official patronage - roam in our cities, our towns, our tribal areas. In most cases their only skills involve the use of guns, grenades and bombs. A means has to be found to rehabilitate these people and prevent them from leading still others down the staircase that leads to violence. In times of high unemployment and high desperation such recruitment is taking place rapidly. We must also act decisively against key militants, their outfits and their seminaries. Many in northern areas are able to identify seminaries where killers are trained. Such institutions exist too in our cities.
They must be closed down. The immediate task for the government is to build the consensus required to go about this. There is no time to lose, no time to waste. The still smouldering remains of the Marriott are a reminder of the need for urgent action. If we fail now, there will yet be worse to come in the days ahead.
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Monday, 22 September 2008