A Pakistani Response to the Marriott Attack

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

September 22, 2008

It is an unintended irony but many of the news stories of the horrific bomb blast at Islamabad’s Marriott were followed by another headline: “foreign troops must stay out of Pakistan, says government”. I stayed at the notoriously insecure Marriott earlier this month, and the Pakistani debate was entirely about American incursions, by Predator and then by U.S. Special Forces, not about the existential threat to Pakistan from its own citizens supported by an al Qaeda presence in Pakistan itself.

It does not matter what the Pakistani man on the street thinks, as long as the army itself does not take this threat seriously. I have doubts as to whether the Marriott atrocity will change many minds. Pakistan remains a state where politics is carried out by a thin layer of elites, but real muscle is provided by the army. Even if President Zardari wants to go after the militants—who were responsible for murdering his wife—will the security forces, including the army, be willing (or able) to take on the task? I have my doubts: in the last year several generals have been attacked, one was murdered, a bus full of airforce personnel was blown up, ISI headquarters itself was hit, as was the navy, and while I was in Islamabad the pride of the Pakistan military, the ordnance factory, was hit by two suicide bombers. If this did not get them to move, I don’t know what will.

The army has always been ambivalent about the Taliban and the militant Islamists that it has cultivated for many years. Most officers view them with disdain, seeing them as an instrument of Pakistani state power, but this instrument now threatens the state itself.

The army has to come out and support Zardari’ s strong statements in deed and in word (so far it has been silent). In fact, Pakistan has to admit to itself publicly that it has lost control over a good portion of its own territory, and rather than belaboring the Americans (and soon, perhaps NATO) for intervening to hit at groups that have used Pakistan as a base from which to operate freely in Afghanistan, they must level with themselves and the Pakistani political community and declare that such outside intervention is necessary so that Pakistan can regain control over its own territory. Instead, the Pakistan public debate (again, conducted among a tiny elite), revolves around the protection of the savior of the state, Dr. AQ Khan, who’s nuclear weapons are irrelevant against the real threat, and the intrusions of the Americans.

If Pakistan cannot face this reality, then Washington should indeed look for other options. None are as attractive as Pakistan as an ally in this struggle, but they do exist. India was the first state to offer the U.S. help after 9/11, and it is now operating in large numbers in Afghanistan itself. Iran was a partner against the Taliban after they were routed from Kabul (and which they again threaten); would this administration, or the next, go to the double-I option? There are other possibilities as well, but Pakistan is the preferred ally in this war, as it has the most to lose if the Islamists should succeed. We’ll see soon whether they are unwilling or unable to act—I don’t know which is worse.