The weekend's suicide bombing of Islamabad's Marriott Hotel is likely to increase U.S. pressure on Pakistan's new president to back more military action to tackle the country's growing Taliban insurgency.
Two weeks into his presidency, Asif Ali Zardari meets in New York today for the first time with President George W Bush for talks likely to focus on disagreements over how to fight the Taliban guerrillas who rule swaths of western Pakistan and battle U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
“The terrorists showed again this weekend why we need to make sure that we are helping train up their forces, that we are sharing information, and that we can work together to try to protect innocent people,” Bush's spokeswoman, Dana Perino, told reporters yesterday.
As the Bush administration pushes Pakistan to fight harder against the Taliban, Zardari has protested the stepped-up attacks this month by U.S. forces striking guerrillas along the border with Afghanistan. Zardari's coalition government will have to decide counter-insurgency policies with the politically powerful army, which is hesitant to escalate its anti-Taliban attacks, said Talat Masood, a retired army lieutenant general.
“This huge, shocking attack could be turned into an opportunity for a civilian government to show real resolve, and to unify Pakistanis into making this war their own,” said Masood, an independent political consultant in the capital. “Their first responses are very uninspiring for a population that is despondent over how this violence can be stopped.”
The army's role is muddled because for years it has sponsored many of the militant guerrilla groups now attacking it, using them as leverage against neighboring India and Afghanistan. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher last week urged reform of Pakistan's main military intelligence agency, which has had close ties to the Taliban.
“This attack has the potential to bring the Pakistani and American governments closer” in their fight against the Taliban, said Ishtiaq Ahmed, an international relations professor at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. “So far, Zardari has expressed a lot of commitment in an abstract fashion, but nothing very concrete.”
Any toughened Pakistani stance against the Taliban and allied militant groups will have to overcome public opinion. A poll published in July by the Washington-based International Republican Institute found that only 27 percent of Pakistanis support army action against the militants.
As Zardari prepared to meet Bush, more signs emerged that business confidence in Pakistan is continuing to darken. Moody's Investors Service cut its rating of Pakistan's government bonds to “negative” from “stable,” noting the country's drop in foreign reserves, which have almost halved in the past year.
British Airways, Europe's third-largest carrier, suspended all flights from London to Islamabad in the wake of the hotel bombing.
Government leaders said yesterday they narrowly missed being struck by the bombing when they shifted a planned dinner for the entire leadership away from the hotel. “The way they are explaining it in Urdu,” Pakistan's main language, “makes them seem to be claiming to have saved the nation from a calamity,” Masood said.
The Sept. 20 destruction of the Marriott Hotel killed 53 people and injured 266, the government says. Two U.S. Defense Department employees died, while a State Department contractor is missing, said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.
A little-known group called Fidayeen-e-Islam claimed in a telephone message to have committed the bombing, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported. It said such a group is known in the Taliban-ruled border district of South Waziristan. Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik said investigations of previous attacks “have led to South Waziristan and to Tehrik-i- Taliban,” the main Pakistani Taliban movement.
The truck, carrying more than 600 kilograms (1,300 pounds) of explosives, smashed into the hotel's security gate and blew up, several hours after Zardari gave his first presidential speech to parliament. He called for Pakistan's fight against terrorism to emphasize economic improvements in the ethnic Pashtun western regions dominated by Taliban guerrillas, and said military force should be used only when necessary.
Pakistan's army has been attacking militants in Bajaur, a Pashtun tribal district on the Afghan border, and killed more than 700 fighters since August, it said last week. That pressure may have provoked the Marriott bombing, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said, according to the state news agency, Associated Press of Pakistan.
Poverty, illiteracy and a lack of basic amenities are contributing to extremism and that is why the government has adopted its strategy in the tribal areas, he said.
South Waziristan is the stronghold of Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, whose guerrillas fight U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan says Mehsud is a senior al-Qaeda figure and blames him for suicide bombings, including the December assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
The Central Intelligence Agency said this year Waziristan has become a new base for al-Qaeda. The previous suicide car bombing in Islamabad, against the Danish embassy in June, was claimed by al-Qaeda.
Western intelligence agencies say the terrorist network uses bases in the frontier region to train, re-arm and plan attacks against international troops across the border. NATO, which commands a force of 53,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, has said insurgent attacks have increased since Pakistan's government began peace talks with insurgents, including Mehsud, in April.
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said yesterday at the Pentagon his government proposed forming a border control force with Pakistan and the U.S.-led coalition to combat insurgents crossing the frontier. The government in Islamabad is looking at the proposal, which was made about six weeks ago, the Pentagon's news service cited Wardak as saying.
President Bush vowed to “fully support the democratically elected government of Pakistan and the Pakistani people as they face enormous challenges economically as well as from terrorism,” in his condemnation of the attack.
Bush is to meet with Zardari during the United Nations General Assembly session in New York.