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Peshawar Hotel Attack: A Bomb With Rippling Effects

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By Patrick Duplat, Islamabad

The headline in Pakistan's English daily The News this morning summed up the country's reaction to the latest terrorist attack. Yesterday's bombing of the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar, which left at least 18 dead and 70 people injured, is the latest in a string of attacks by extremists in Pakistan. It is telling that such a tragic incident would be seen as almost routine - a reminder that the country is in a state of war.

Yet this particular blast may have an impact far beyond the huge crater in the hotel's parking lot - as it could compromise the assistance on which millions of displaced Pakistanis depend.

The Pearl Continental was a major landmark in the capital of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Located on the famed Khyber road, it was where aid workers, journalists and businessmen stayed because of its prime location and relative security. The hotel - a few hundred meters away from the road - was an oasis of calm amidst the bustling city, and its rooftop offered stunning views of the surrounding mountains.

The cynics - or perhaps realists - will say an attack on the Pearl Continental was bound to happen. The security environment has severely deteriorated in the past months in Peshawar. The city is said to be in control of the Taliban, or at least out of control of the government. Just a year ago, foreigners could walk in the city's bazaar and drive around to shops and restaurants. In the past months, most expatriates kept to their compounds, or retreated to the safety of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital a couple of hours' drive away.

Somewhat paradoxically, as the security situation in NWFP worsened the presence of international staff working for aid agencies increased. The humanitarian community grew in response to the largest population movement in Pakistan since partition with India in 1947. This massive displacement happened in two waves: first, half a million people were displaced following a large scale military operation on the border with Afghanistan at the end of last year; then last month, at least 1.5 million people had to flee their homes in less than three weeks as the Pakistani army moved into the Swat and Buner districts.

Many national and international aid agencies came pouring in, providing food, healthcare and basic supplies to families which often had to leave everything behind. Hundreds of aid workers had arrived in past weeks as a massive logistical operation was put in place. Peshawar was at the center of it all - where weekly coordination meetings were held between the government, UN agencies and civil society.

The Pearl Continental bombing was evidently targeting foreigners - and indirectly the humanitarian community for whom the hotel was a transit hub of sorts. Two of the casualties were working for the United Nations - one with the UN Refugee Agency and the other with UNICEF. They had come as part of emergency teams to support the relief effort for displaced Pakistanis.

While it's too early to have a clear picture, it's likely that UN agencies and most international aid organizations will have to curtail their operations. Already some staff have been evacuated from the region. The delivery of basic services will probably be compromised because of limitations on field visits and the difficulty of monitoring remotely. The extent of the impact on civilians will depend on the ability of aid agencies to adjust to a new security paradigm. Today, most agencies were regrouping and trying to determine how to run their existing operations under more stringent security constraints.

Working in such a complex and insecure environment is not an impossible feat - as ongoing relief operations in Afghanistan and Somalia have proven. Sadly, perhaps humanitarians can also say: 'déjà vu.'

This is part of HuffPost's Spotlight On Pakistan. Eyes & Ears and HuffPost World are building a network of people living in Pakistan who can help us understand what is happening there. These individuals will send us reports -- either snippets of information or full-length stories -- about how the political crisis affects life in Pakistan. This is an opportunity to have a continued conversation with Americans about what's happening in your country. If you would like to participate, please sign up here.


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