Pakistan’s deadliest bombing in two years shattered a crowded market in Peshawar, killing at least 97 people as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began a mission to calm tensions in the countries’ relations.
The explosion ripped through the Meena Bazaar, where small shops selling women’s clothes line narrow lanes in Peshawar’s historic walled city. “Bodies are scattered and badly burned,” Mohammed Naeem, a spokesman for the Edhi Ambulance Service said today by phone from Peshawar, capital of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province.
The bombing, and two attacks by militants in Kabul, capital of neighboring Afghanistan, are an escalation of the violence that is complicating the Obama administration’s search for a strategy to contain the Taliban and allied militants in both countries. The attack on civilians was “cowardly, not courageous,” and underscored that “these extremists are committed to destroying what is dear” to Pakistanis and Americans, Clinton said in a press conference in Islamabad, the capital.
Pakistan’s military is fighting an almost two-week-old offensive to rout the country’s largest Taliban force from its base in South Waziristan, near the porous border with Afghanistan. The Taliban’s retaliatory suicide bombings and assaults have claimed nearly 270 lives, prompting tight security and secrecy around Clinton’s three-day visit.
Today’s bombing was the deadliest since October 2007, when 170 people died in a suicide attack in Karachi.
The attack on a women’s clothing market is the latest of several strikes this year against civilian targets rather than security forces, said Ishtiaq Ahmed, an international relations professor and security analyst at Islamabad’s Quaid-i- Azam University.
“That may reflect an increasing desperation on the part of the militants as the army is going all-out against them in Waziristan,” or “a growth in the influence of al-Qaeda,” which has not shared the Pakistani Taliban’s past preference for government or military targets, Ahmed said by phone.
Pakistan’s “resolve and determination” to fight terrorism “will not be shaken” by today’s attack, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said in the press conference with Clinton.
The secretary of state is trying to ease tensions that rose this month over a new U.S. assistance bill for Pakistan and to show backing for the anti-Taliban offensive. She told reporters traveling with her that she will highlight U.S. support for the civilian government and economic development, shifting “what had been in the past several years primarily a security, anti-terrorism agenda.”
Clinton said the U.S. will help Pakistan solve its chronic electricity shortage by upgrading power plants where production is constricted by outdated equipment, and will replace or repair pumps at 10,000 wells nationwide to save energy and boost farm productivity. “The terrorists and extremists are very good at destroying, but they cannot build. That is where we have the advantage,” she said at the press conference.
Clinton’s trip comes less than two weeks after Qureshi visited Washington and conveyed the anger of Pakistan’s military and political elites over perceived strings attached to a $1.5 billion annual U.S. aid package passed by Congress last month.
“It is unfortunate that there are those who question our motives who are perhaps skeptical that we are going to be there for the long term,” Clinton told reporters en route to Pakistan. Language in the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act became a rallying point for opponents of the government of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
“These aren’t conditions on Pakistan so much as they are metrics for measuring whether we think our aid is being productive,” Clinton said.
The bill requires the secretary of state to certify civilian control of Pakistan’s military, cooperation with counterterrorism, protection of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and compliance with international non-proliferation standards.
An unrelated U.S. defense bill passed last week requires the secretaries of State and Defense to report to Congress on whether aid to Pakistan is used in line with U.S. interests and not diverted to military spending against India.
Clinton’s visit -- to include meetings with tribal elders, women, journalists, civic leaders and government officials in Islamabad and Lahore -- is also intended to dispel fears the U.S. will abandon the region when counterterrorism objectives are accomplished.
Polls show a majority of Pakistanis disapprove of U.S. policy, especially strikes by unmanned aircraft on suspected insurgents in the country’s tribal regions. Strong anti-American sentiment could “jeopardize the U.S. ability to partner with Pakistan effectively,” said Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
The Kerry-Lugar-Berman civilian aid bill signed this month by President Barack Obama authorizes $7.5 billion over five years for road construction, schools, power facilities and livelihood projects. It’s in addition to about $7.6 billion in U.S. military payments to reimburse Pakistan for counterterrorism spending since 2001.
Obama is weighing how to address worsening insurgencies in Pakistan and Afghanistan eight years after the Sept. 11 terror attack on the U.S. and the retreat of its architects into ethnic Pashtun tribal areas along the countries’ border.
In Kabul today, gunmen stormed a guesthouse and killed at least five UN workers in an attack the Taliban said was aimed at disrupting next month’s Afghan presidential runoff election. Eight more U.S. troops killed by bombings in Afghanistan made October the deadliest month for the U.S. since its 2001 invasion.
Access interview at bloomberg.com