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Strategic dilemmas amidst the bloodshed of Pakistan’s Marriott attack

Commentary, 26 September 2008
Occurring at the same time as a precipitous decline in Pakistan-US security co-operation, the bombing of the Marriot hotel in Islamabad heightens the need for Pakistan’s political and security institutions to harmonise their own efforts against jihadi insurgents, but illustrates the magnitude of this undertaking.

Occurring at the same time as a precipitous decline in Pakistan-US security co-operation, the bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad heightens the need for Pakistan’s political and security institutions to harmonise their own efforts against jihadi insurgents, but illustrates the magnitude of this undertaking.

By Samir Puri for

The suicide truck bomb that devastated Islamabad’s Marriott hotel on 21 September 2008 killed fifty-three and injured a further 266. In addition to the human toll, the attack was awash with both symbolic and strategic significance. In matters of terrorism the line between symbolism and strategy is a blurred one indeed – in this case the audacity of the targeting, the scale of destruction, and the timing of the attack has combined to heighten Pakistan’s strategic conundrum in graphic fashion.

Symbolically, the Islamabad Marriott represented a key hub in Pakistan’s foreign interactions. Deemed both prestigious and secure, the US-owned hotel chain could list amongst its clientele foreign diplomats, businessman and journalists, as well as the Pakistani elite they interacted with. Although the brunt of the toll was borne by Pakistanis, including numerous hotel employees, the dead included the Czech ambassador, a pair of US defence department employees and a Danish intelligence officer. Similar to the assault on Kabul’s Serena hotel earlier in the year – that capital’s comparable bastion of international activity - the Marriott attack leaves little in doubt that the attack was a blood-drenched condemnation of foreign influence in Pakistani affairs.

Strategically, the attack was the latest in what is a sustained suicide bombing campaign waged against the Pakistani state’s physical apparatus, leadership, domestic popularity and ultimately its decision-making process. The relentlessness of the campaign is astonishing. Pakistan suffered some fifty-six suicide attacks in 2007 (including the attack that assassinated Benazir Bhutto that December), and the Marriott attack is the thirty-first of 2008. A little-known group, Fidayeen-e-Islam, has claimed responsibility for the Marriott blast, which is said to bear all the hallmarks of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an Al-Qa’ida affiliate operating from Pakistan’s autonomous tribal regions. Their suicide bombing campaign has been mounted specifically to coerce the Pakistani state to cease military operations directed against them along the border regions with Afghanistan, which are seen as being undertaken at US behest by a mercurial Pakistani state that has received in excess of $11 billion from Washington since 2001.

The suicide bombing campaign aims to raise to unacceptable levels the negative costs of Pakistan’s participation in Washington’s security agenda, and as such, the shakiness of Islamabad’s civilian government cannot have escaped the jihadists attention. The Marriott attack occurred mere hours after President Asif Ali Zardari – the widower of Benazir Bhutto – delivered his inaugural address to parliament. Subsequent to the attack, confused details emerged from the Interior Ministry suggesting the Marriott had been mooted as a venue for hosting Zadari, Prime Minister Yusuf Gillani and other key ministers for dinner that very night, meaning the attack may have been envisaged as a decapitation strike against the Pakistani leadership. Regardless of whether or not assassination defined the intent of the attack, Pakistan’s stuttering political rehabilitation after the Musharraf era could well do without such assault. In August the PPP/PML-N parliamentary coalition that had swept to power amidst much popular optimism in February’s nationwide elections was fractured through its own contradictions. Parallel though this trend may be to the bombings, if Zardari can be cast to the Pakistani populace as a politically isolated American stooge – in the same way Musharraf came to be viewed – this would clearly suit the militants’ purposes.

The Marriott attack brings into sharp focus important elements of the strategic nature of the jihadi-Islamist assault against the Pakistani state.

• Geographic distribution of attacks: the suicide bombing campaign is the forward-most projection of power the insurgents operating along the Pakistan-Afghan border can manage. Had the violence of the insurgency been limited to the ‘wild west’ of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan regions, it would have far less coercive value than attacks occurring in the Punjab heartland. The Marriott attack, just like the suicide attack on the Pakistan Ordnance Factories in the Punjabi town of Wah the month before, are indicative of a threat that cannot be contained and a situation that is slipping from Islamabad’s grasp.

• Target selection: the targeting in this coercive campaign is indicative of its nature, having overwhelmingly attacked the physical apparatus and the symbols of the Pakistani state (albeit with a huge toll in blood of ordinary Pakistanis killed and maimed). Security check posts and military bases, armaments factories, political figures and symbols of foreign influence have dominated targeting selections, indicating a focussed intent on behalf of the attackers.

• The attributes of the weapon itself: the Pakistani state is under sustained assault by a weapon that Islamist circles credit for past coercive successes ranging from the expulsion of US and foreign forces from Lebanon after the 1983 bombings of US and French barracks in Beirut, to the Spanish withdrawal from Iraq after the Madrid train bombings in 2004. Suicide bombing – an act that typifies the abhorrence of Jihadism to others – is a tactic that carries great potential strategic utility to the Pakistani state’s tormentors.

However, the bilateral contours of Pakistan’s internal security affairs belie the instrumentality of the US-Pakistan partnership in guiding events. The Pakistani state is under quite immense pressure from dual sources: from a US ally that is forcing Pakistan’s hand by staging humiliating unilateral operations of its own using drones and latterly US special forces to strike within Pakistani territory; and from a jihadi-islamist foe that has delivered on its threat to drench Pakistan in bloodshed as punishment for the state’s unholy alliance with the US. Caught between these seemingly unassailable dual trends, Pakistan’s range of workable options is starkly limited.

Western critics have long-since argued that Pakistan does have one option, and that is to more comprehensively embrace the war against Islamist militancy as its own struggle. In order to effectively confront terrorism and the growing and writ of ‘Talibanisation’, they argue, Pakistan’s trinity of its political leadership, security institutions and populace must harmonise and intensify their fight. If there is any optimism lying amidst the fire-gutted ruins of Islamabad’s Marriott, then it is that Pakistan’s collective senses may be further heightened towards this end. In this context, continued US unilateralism may well score tactical successes by killing individual militants, but will prove strategically ruinous by confirming in Pakistani eyes that an ungrateful US benefactor is in fact the principal source of its woes.

Samir Puri is an Analyst with RAND Europe.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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