Pakistan Notebook
Impressions from one front in what we used to call the War on Terror.


Clifford D. May

Islamabad — I picked an interesting moment to visit Pakistan: four terrorist attacks in less than a week. The first was at the World Food Programme office here in the capital: five killed. The second was in the Khyber Bazaar in Peshawar: more than 50 killed. The third was at the military’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi, where Taliban insurgents, armed with automatic weapons, grenades, and rocket launchers, fought for 22 hours. According to government spokesmen, a brigadier, a colonel, and three commandos were killed. More than two dozen hostages were taken, but most reportedly were saved when a would-be suicide bomber was shot and killed before he managed to detonate his vest.

A couple days later, terrorists attacked a military convoy, killing about 40 near the Swat Valley — territory only recently liberated from the Taliban by Pakistani military forces following a difficult and costly battle.

If you look closely, you’ll see a message written in this blood: “You, Pakistan’s so-called leaders, can’t provide food for the hungry or security for the marketplace. Your soldiers and officers can’t even protect themselves. You are useless and weak. You will submit. Or we will destroy you.”

Pakistanis can be remarkably nonchalant about terrorism: They have suffered 129 terrorist attacks in the two years since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Since Sept. 11, 2001, at least 5,000 Pakistanis have been killed in acts of terrorism.

But the assault on the GHQ seems to have shaken people up. Hitting the Pakistani equivalent of the Pentagon is, as a headline in the daily newspaper Dawn puts it: “audacious.” The military is the country’s strongest, proudest, and most durable institution. Retaliation is expected, probably in Waziristan, where the Taliban seems to have made recent gains. 

I was invited to Pakistan by the State Department under a “U.S. Speaker and Specialist” program intended to improve the dialogue between Pakistanis and Americans. My hosts have been the American embassy in Islamabad and the U.S. consulates in Lahore and Karachi. Terrorist attacks have been carried out in all three cities. Americans have been among the targets. An American security official tells me: “There will be more. It’s a question of when, not if.”

I have been speaking at universities; meeting with journalists, government officials, religious leaders, and think-tank scholars; and doing radio, television, and newspaper interviews. People seem eager to talk to me, to tell me what they think, question me, argue about terrorism — how to define it, what causes it, how Pakistanis and Americans should respond. 

There are not many Americans and Europeans running around Pakistan these days. That’s a victory for the terrorists. Last month, a Greek aid volunteer, Athanasius Lerounis, was kidnapped. He had been in Pakistan for 15 years building schools, water-supply systems, and clinics. The Taliban wants $10 million in ransom plus the release of some of their comrades from Pakistani jails in exchange for letting him go.

Non-Muslim minorities today constitute only about 3 percent of Pakistan’s population. In Karachi, a sprawling, sweltering seaside metropolis of more than 15 million people, a sophisticated Pakistani tells me: “This used to be such a cosmopolitan city. It was enriched by the presence of Christians, Parsis [Zoroastrians from Iran], even Jews. It was a better place then.” When the people who are different are driven out, he theorizes, the people who remain behind do not get along better — they just discover more differences among themselves.

Pakistan is a nation of 175 million people — the third largest Muslim-majority country in the world. Since last year, it has had a democratic government — but not a particularly popular one. Before that, it had a military dictator; he had even less support. Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons — al-Qaeda says it intends to acquire them in time; the Taliban will help if it can. The Kerry-Lugar bill, passed by Congress and soon to reach President Obama’s desk, calls Pakistan “a major non-NATO ally and a valuable partner in the battle against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” 

But it is a conflicted ally and a fragile partnership. As recently as last May, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates voiced the suspicion that within the Pakistani military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency are those who “play both sides” — who have sympathies for and links with various militant jihadi groups.