We are supposed to hate suicide bombers, those grotesque creatures hell-bent on killing innocent people because of their “demented ideology”. There is no shortage of experts delivering sermons from every pulpit pontificating on the evils of terrorism. Government officials and their media sycophants join in this chorus but few bother to ask whence these hateful creatures came? There were no suicide bombers in Pakistan or Afghanistan a mere five years ago. What happened during this period to give birth to the phenomenon of suicide bombings is a question that must be addressed in earnest.
No problem can be tackled or solved properly without understanding its genesis, the circumstances surrounding its emergence and factors that feed its growth. Equally important is the fact that if a particular approach fails to solve the problem, alternatives must be explored.
Pakistan is rapidly hurtling into the abyss of oblivion. Hardly a day passes by without a bomb explosion or suicide bombing in some part of the country. What possible excuse could there be for the murderous attack on a masjid as happened on December 4 that killed more than 40 people in Rawalpindi, we are asked. The coordinated attack by suicide bombers followed by armed men shooting worshippers during Friday prayers when the masjid was full was particularly gruesome. Among those killed were a major general, a brigadier, a colonel, two lieutenant colonels and two majors. Seventeen children were also killed.
Four days later (December 8), the Moon Market in Iqbal Town, Lahore was bombed when it was full of shoppers; 43 people died in that carnage. On December 9 the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) offices in Multan were attacked. Unable to enter the building, the attackers detonated their lethal wares in the nearby building where families of ISI officials live. The car bombing left 12 dead and scores injured. Many more such attacks will occur in the days to come if past experience is anything to go by. The brief hiatus during Eid al-Adha celebrations has been shattered with far greater bloodletting.
Theories abound about the identity of the perpetrators: Taliban, Indian agents, American agents, Afghan agents, Blackwater mercenaries and Mossad. The list is endless. All of them may be involved but how has this situation evolved? Why were there no suicide bombers a mere five years ago; what circumstances led to their emergence and who else is fishing in the troubled waters of Pakistan? Is the US a friend or foe? The people of Pakistan know the answer but Pakistani elites continue to harbor illusions about America’s friendship and believe it wants to help Pakistan –” presumably over a cliff.
Immediately after the Moon Market bombing in Lahore, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the government had evidence that weapons were being smuggled from Afghanistan. Perhaps. Lahore Police chief, Pervez Rathore said India was involved. This may also be true. The Lahore daily, The Nation, reported on December 9 that two vehicles were stopped attempting to enter the restricted area of Lahore Cantonment late at night. The occupants were Americans who refused to show their identity papers or allow the police to search their vehicles. Officials from the US Consulate finally arrived at the scene to get the vehicles and their occupants freed. There is widespread belief that these were Blackwater mercenaries.
Thousands of Blackwater operatives (the organization has now renamed itself Xe Service to hide the criminal past associated with its former name) have descended on Pakistan. They carry prohibited weapons and on numerous occasions have been arrested by the police in suspicious circumstances only to be released on orders of Pakistani government officials. The US embassy in Islamabad has also hired a large number of retired army officers that act like warlords, trying to browbeat the police into submission. Poorly paid and lacking motivation, the police are easily intimidated by ex-army officers who throw their weight about driving in expensive, American-provided vehicles.
Last November, a plane load of Blackwater mercenaries arrived in Pakistan and were immediately whisked through Islamabad International Airport without going through immigration and customs formalities, according to officials at the airport quoted by The Nation newspaper (November 4, 2009). “We had instructions to allow the foreigners entry without custom procedure,” officials on duty at Islamabad airport said. Blackwater mercenaries have operated in Pakistan for many years. On several occasions Pakistani police have arrested them at odd hours near Pakistan’s nuclear sites or other sensitive installations. Every time ex-army officers working for the US embassy have intervened to secure their release. These former military officers and a long list of bureaucrats, journalists and politicians are on the US embassy payroll and are working directly against the interests of Pakistan.
Former Chief of Army Staff Mirza Aslam Baig has gone so far as to accuse the former military dictator Pervez Musharraf of being complicit in Blackwater crimes. General Baig has said it was Musharraf who gave these mercenaries the green light to carry out terrorist operations in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Quetta. The current civilian rulers, led by Asif Ali Zardari, a venal character and a notorious crook, are in no position to say no to the Americans. Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times reported on August 29, 2009 that the CIA hired these mercenaries for targeted assassinations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan as early as 2004. Following a particularly gruesome episode in Baghdad in 2007 in which 17 Iraqis were murdered in cold blood, the Iraqi regime refused to grant the company an “operating license.” In a joint piece in the New York Times on December 11, Mazzetti and James Risen shed light on the tight relationship between the CIA and Blackwater. Hired for security duties, Blackwater operatives have indulged in wanton killings in Iraq. In Pakistan, the US hired them for illegal drone attacks as well as targeted killings.
Blackwater mercenaries are only one, even if the major problem facing Pakistan. There are other factors as well behind the escalating mayhem that is rapidly spinning out of control. The root of the problem is the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan that has now spilled over into Pakistan. As a consequence of the US-NATO war and brutality in Afghanistan and the incessant drone attacks, there is great resentment in Pakistan toward the US. With fighting concentrated primarily in the south and southeast of Afghanistan where the Pashtuns reside, mass killings there have aroused much anger among the Pashtuns on the Pakistan side of the border as well.
It was bad enough when the US-NATO forces launched their aerial assault with B-1 bombers in October 2001 killing thousands of people in Afghanistan; the bombing of wedding parties and defenseless villagers in their mud huts in subsequent years has intensified hatred of the US. This has been heightened by the Pakistan military launching operations against its own people in the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan, Swat, Bajaur and now in Orakzai Agency. This ongoing painful chapter has contributed greatly to escalating tensions in Pakistan where none existed before, leading to the phenomenon of suicide bombings.
We need to consider the timeline of several events.
Military attacks in North and South Waziristan
Under pressure from the US, the former Pakistani dictator, General Pervez Musharraf ordered military operations against the people of South Waziristan in early 2004. The excuse advanced was that Pakistan had to “flush out” foreign fighters, mainly Uzbeks and Arabs. After several weeks of fighting that left hundreds of villagers dead and thousands as refugees, an agreement was reached with Naik Muhammad, the young charismatic tribal leader in the region. As a gesture of goodwill during a ceremony on April 24, 2004, the tribesmen surrendered their pistols and handed a copy of the Qur’an to the Pakistani general.
The agreement horrified Washington; it did not want peace in the area. On May 21, 2004, Musharraf presided over a high-powered meeting in Islamabad and ordered resumption of attacks. While the Corps Commander Peshawar, in charge of military operations in Waziristan, opposed such attacks and warned against breaking the agreement because it would have serious repercussions for the future, Musharraf was adamant. He insisted on attacking the tribesmen because Washington demanded it. The military relaunched its operations in early June. The US also joined with drone attacks and killed Naik Muhammad with whom the Pakistani military had, only a few weeks earlier, signed a widely publicized peace deal. The people of Waziristan were incensed by such betrayal. In order to protect the US, Musharraf claimed the Pakistan army had carried out the attack that killed Naik Muhammad. More than 15,000 people attended his funeral prayer in defiance of threats that the funeral procession would be bombed.
Between 2004 and 2006, Waziristan –” both North and South –” became a war zone. The US continued drone attacks killing civilians, mostly women and children. Several ceasefires were agreed upon only to be violated as a result of US pressure or drone attacks. As the attacks continued, there emerged a group calling itself Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Suicide bombings increased in Pakistani cities mainly in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The Pakistan army continued attacking its own people while the Americans intensified their demands that Islamabad must “do more”.
Lal Masjid attack: July 2007
As if the war in Waziristan that had already spread to other areas of the NWFP and the adjoining tribal areas was not bad enough, Musharraf perpetrated another outrage by attacking the Lal Masjid-madrassa compound in Islamabad in July 2007. Run by two imams, with long ties to the government and several ministers, they became embroiled in a dispute over growing immorality in the capital, especially prostitution. Girl students from the madrassa took it upon themselves to clean up the filth because the government had refused to do so. The girls’ action was taken as a great affront by the regime as well as the secular elite. How could government-paid imams demand an end to prostitution when the ruling elites regularly patronize their dens? Several weeks of negotiations between the clerics and government emissaries fell apart because Musharraf did not want a peaceful resolution. He insisted on a military showdown to establish the “government’s writ” and to prove he was in charge. The Americans also demanded crushing the militants.
On July 11, 2007, Musharraf ordered his commandos to attack the Lal Masjid. In the weeklong attack, more than 1,400 students, most of them girls, were brutally murdered. Phosphorous bombs were used to burn people to death. The overwhelming majority of girls belonged to Swat; they were from poor families and had found the madrassa-masjid complex a useful place to educate their daughters and to provide them a roof, being too poor even to feed them (madrassas in Pakistan do not charged fees; Muslim philanthropists often contribute toward such expenses as part of their Islamic duty).
The Lal Masjid attack sent a shockwave throughout the country, particularly in Swat. While the secular elites, including Benazir Bhutto, then still “languishing” in her luxury apartment in London or commuting to her palaces in Dubai, applauded the commando raid and the killing of hundreds of innocent girls, ordinary Pakistanis were horrified. The Americans, too, applauded the killings. The result was catastrophic for Pakistan.
Bombings and suicide attacks immediately escalated. If one can establish a turning point in Pakistan’s tortuous history, the Lal Masjid saga must stand out as the one that pushed the country over the brink. Battle lines became so clearly drawn that only the blind could fail to see. The ruling elites have never cared for ordinary people or their children but hitherto it was reflected in lack of services. Now the elites had embarked on a killing spree. The reaction was swift and strong. There has been no turning back since. Soon Musharraf was engulfed in a political crisis that forced him out of office following a British-American brokered deal that facilitated Bhutto’s return to Pakistan. Corruption cases against Bhutto, her even more corrupt husband Asif Zardari, and thousands of other thieves and criminals, totaling 8041 people, were withdrawn under what came to be called the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). Critics dubbed it the National Robbers’ Ordinance.
Before the January 8, 2008 national elections were held, Benazir Bhutto was shot dead in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007. Her death has been engulfed in controversy; few believe the official version that she hit her head on a door handle in the vehicle when she fell down after being hit. There is widespread belief in Pakistan that her husband had a hand in her killing. The street urchin, not fit to be even a doorman, ended up as president of the country and its unfortunate people after Musharraf was forced to resign on August 18, 2008. Musharraf’s departure, however, did little to contain the mayhem that was rapidly engulfing the country. More than 100,000 troops were deployed in the tribal area fighting its own people, merely to appease the US.
Attack on Swat
On April 26, 2009, the military attacked Swat. It immediately resulted in more than three million people becoming refugees. In the sweltering heat, people were forced to live in dusty camps in Peshawar, Mardan and Sawabi. There was little or no government help extended to them. Pakistani bureaucrats that had gained notoriety for past corruption were appointed to look after the new refugees referred to as Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), stole donations earmarked for refugees. The Swat operation lasted several months. Massive damage was inflicted on major towns in Swat and the surrounding areas; hundreds of young people were executed in cold blood but leaders of the Taliban, against whom the operation was ostensibly launched, were neither captured nor killed. Some have been apprehended but it is widely believed that they are being sheltered by the regime.
On October 17, 2009, the military launched a fresh attack on South Waziristan, again under the rubric of extending “government writ”. This strange animal is invoked each time the Americans exert pressure on Pakistan to “do more”. While the military has continued to bomb villages in South Waziristan turning it into wasteland driving 500,000 people from their homes, car and suicide bombings have escalated in cities like Kohat, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Lahore and Multan. October was a particularly bad month with attacks on a number of military targets including the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. A number of brigadiers were also killed in Islamabad.
On December 12, 2009, the Pakistan government announced that it was halting military operations in South Waziristan but attacks against Orakzai Agency had already commenced. Long-range artillery batteries placed in Hangu, the district headquarter bordering Orakzai Agency, are being used to fire at villages like Bagh and other places in the tribal area. An estimated 250,000 people, the overwhelming majority women and children, from Orakzai Agency have been forced to flee and are now living in appalling conditions in refugee camps in Hangu. With the onset of winter that is extremely harsh in that region coupled with lack of proper shelter and heating facilities as well as lack of food, people’s suffering will escalate, as will their resentment to seek revenge for the military’s barbarous attacks. Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gailani said this would be a 10-12 year war. He is beginning to sound like American officials.
As US President Barack Obama announced his surge for Afghanistan, he also called upon Pakistan to launch military operations in Baluchistan. Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, wants to turn the whole of Pakistan into a war zone. He has threatened to extend drone attacks into Baluchistan as well. The Los Angeles Times reported on December 12 that the US intends to launch drone attacks o the Afghan Taliban Shura’s alleged home base in Quetta. Now that would be a real gesture of peace!
When the Pakistan army and American drones kill innocent civilians, it is unrealistic to expect that people will not react. Each killing escalates resentment and stokes the urge to exact revenge, a long-established tradition in that part of the world. Victims have long memories; they do not easily forget their dead no matter how many rhetorical phrases are hurled at them. If for 3,000 American deaths on 9/11, the US can attack two countries and murder more than 1.5 million people, why is it so difficult to understand that other people will feel equally hurt and seek revenge?
The ruling elites in Pakistan should understand that they have aligned themselves with the enemy –” the US government –” against their own people for a fistful of dollars. They are now enemy agents and therefore, legitimate targets for those who have lost loved ones in the ongoing escalating attacks on their villages where they witnessed their children, mothers or wives blown to pieces. It is not and never was Pakistan’s war; it is America’s war imposed on Pakistan. And it does not help to prattle about an “extremist ideology” driving people to do crazy things; this is the reaction of very normal, ordinary people. It would be highly abnormal if they did not react this way.
Hamid Mir, the Pakistani journalist recounts the story of a young boy lying in a run-down hospital in Waziristan. The boy who had lost his limbs in a US Drone attack, told Mir that his mother too had died in a similar strike. In her dying moments, she had instructed him to avenge in Islamabad –” where the decisions to maim and kill are made –” what was done to her in Bajaur. Years later, his older brother was caught in Islamabad attempting to blow himself up in a high-security area.
The Pakistani elites have embarked on a suicidal policy. Their actions can only invite suicide bombers. They have only themselves to blame. History will render a very harsh verdict because they are actively engaged in destroying Pakistan.