The one ton truck bomb that ripped apart Islamabad's Marriot Inn last Saturday was both a warning to its pro-American elite and a revenge attack against Pakistan's new government
At least 56 people - a probably many more - were reported killed and some 250 injured by the huge explosion that tore off the front of the hotel and sent century-old trees and vehicles flying through the air. The number of suicide bombers has not yet been established. They managed to breach the heavy security cordon and road blocks that surrounding the hotel that have thwarted previous attempted attacks.
The Marriot, formerly the Holiday Inn, burned for hours and was left a smoking ruin. The Saturday evening attack, delivered at the beginning of the traditional `Iftar' dinner breaking the Ramadan fast, was clearly chosen to deliver a terrible message to Pakistan's ruling elite and their western backers.
The Marriot was a favorite gathering place for Islamabad's politicians, military leaders, journalists and wealthy businessmen. It was also the hotel of choice for foreign visitors in a city bereft of decent hotels. Everyone went to the Marriot, one of the few places with any life in painfully quiet Islamabad.
I have been staying there for some 25 years, passing innumerable days on its ancient telex machines and, later, media center, and dining on its curry buffet which frequently proved toxic to foreigners and Pakistanis alike. Its lobby was jammed every night with Pakistan's wealthy businessmen and their wives adorned with jewelry and fine saris celebrating weddings and other functions. The coffee shop became one of Islamabad's premier venues for intrigue and gossip.
The attack on the Marriot, an American-owned chain with local franchisees, was a clear warning to the United States and the other western backers of the new government of President Asif Ali Zardari, who recently came to power thanks in good part to Washington's financial backing. Now that the only decent hotel in Islamabad has been destroyed, foreign journalists and diplomats will be less likely to visit Pakistan's federal capitol.
The bombing was also an unmistakable warning to Pakistan's tiny pro-American elite. Pakistan is in desperate economic plight, with its currency nose-diving, its loans overdue, hard currency reserves almost exhausted and unemployment surging in a nation half of whose 165 million citizens subsist on $2 per day.
But the attack also delivered a second, more important message. It was revenge for Pakistani government bombing and shelling of Pashtun villages, backed by US air strikes, in the nation's tribal zone, known as FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) that lies along the Afghan border. The supposedly autonomous region's Pashtun tribesmen, many of whom support and aid their fellow Pashtun Taliban in Afghanistan, are in open rebellion against the Islamabad government, which has received some $12 billion from Washington since 2001 to wage a low-grade war against them. The Pentagon has been loudly claiming its inability to pacify Afghanistan is due to support from Taliban from within Pakistan's FATA, and has begun launching ground attacks by US forces inside Pakistan's Pashtun territory.
Pakistan's former US-backed dictator, Pervez Musharraf, sent 130,000 troops to attack his Pashtun citizens, enraging Pakistanis and fatally undermining his rule. Now, his successor, President Asif Zardari, is doing the same thing. Pakistan's near bankrupt government has become addicted to US aid. Meanwhile, Pakistan's 650,000-man armed forces says it will fight any further attempts by the US to attack Pakistani territory.
Pashtun tribesmen, who number well over 30 million, are notorious for their passion for revenge. They have begun responding to attacks against their tribal compounds by Pakistani and US forces with bombing attacks deep inside Pakistan. The largest bombing until this weekend was at Wah, near Islamabad.
The Pashtun struck back at Islamabad after a series of Pakistani and US air raids that killed well over 60 civilians in the tribal zone. Leaders of the so-called Pakistani Taliban are warning Islamabad that its continued attacks in FATA will be meet with equally violent and deadly responses by suicide bombers.
The Marriot attack is further proof that Pakistan is edging ever deeper into outright civil conflict at a time when the stalemated war in Afghanistan is steadily seeping into Pakistan. Candidates Barack Obama and John McCain have both called for sending more US troops to Afghanistan and confronting Pakistan. They should look carefully before leaping into the accelerating vortex of violence in both nations.