The Suicide Attack on the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar – A Lesson in the Battle Of Public Perceptions

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Context

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As the Afghan war spreads deeper into Pakistan and its tribal areas, violence in the country’s urban areas has increased. Those who view these events as individual reactions to the Swat/Malakand Operation are deceiving themselves: in fact, the rise in violence is a consequence of a policy change.

The Pakistani government is currently ill-prepared to deal with these high-profile attacks and as a result is losing the public’s confidence.

Analysis

397_S_BarrierSome observers maintain that the attacks show a high level of ingenuity, but security lapses are too frequent to be explained solely in terms of terrorist sophistication. The targets of some recent high-profile attacks include: the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, the Sri-Lankan Cricket team, the ISI offices in Lahore and the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar.

These attacks were successful in large part because in most cases not even the most elementary preventive measures were in place, not because of especially brilliant planning. In other cases what was lacking was serious attention to implementation of a contingency plan. Furthermore, the failure of the defensive plans to prevent or stop attacks was a sign of the ineptitude of the whole civilian security hierarchy and bureaucracy and raises the issue of whether their training and skills were up to snuff. The credibility of the politician is already at a low point; now the standing of the civil defense system, apparently unable to protect the public, is at stake.

If appropriate and stringent modern security measures were in place and employed, these attacks might have been prevented. All of these incidents, with perhaps the exception of the attack on the ISI offices in Lahore, involved a single catastrophic point of failure, which has the potential to wreak irreversible damage to the prestige and psyche of the country. The video footage of the attacks reveals that in each instance the security guards were caught off-guard by the speed with which the extremists executed their operations.

The intent here is not to blame the front-line security staff members themselves, but to point out that they were unfortunately a part of a bigger problem, a faulty security plan put together by their superiors. These higher-ups have failed so far to adapt to and counter frequently used extremist tactics. This points to their lack of modern training, which involves quick information sharing and analysis. Before any remedial action can be taken, failures in the existing apparatus have to be identified and then rectified immediately.

As to the new AfPak policy: it is based on the misplaced assumption that the Afghan Taliban and the insurgents in Aghanistan can be held at bay by controlling the cross border support for the Afghan Taliban from Pakistan’s tribal areas. Those who hold this view also maintain that pressure needs to be mounted on the Pakistani Taliban in the Pushtun support belt of the tribal areas of Pakistan. Some observers say that the failure to do this helps explain the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 80s. It should be pointed out, however, that although this might work out well in the short run, it will result in a strategic debacle over the long haul, by widening the theater of war and creating a civilian nightmare in the form of IDPs. If the United States and NATO, with their combined might, have not been able to isolate the troublemakers in Afghanistan, how can one expect Pakistan do so? Again, the above outlined approach risks spreading the war deeper into Pakistan, as the extremist and jihadist are not defined by region, nationality, or ethnicity but by an ideology spanning many Islamic countries and populations. In fact, targeted and precision weaponry in the hands of Pakistanis can be much more effective than large scale military operations (often resulting in civilian casualties) in dealing with the militants and eliminating their leadership. Large scale civilian casualties provide excellent ammunition for the extremists, strengthening passionate mass opposition to the Unites States, NATO and Pakistan.

No other measure can better reinforce the Pakistani resolve against extremists than support in the Kashmir dispute. This is also the issue by which the United States and the West can heal their credibility gap and burnish their public image in the region, giving teeth to their contention that they are not at war against Islam. President Obama’s speech in Egypt was the first major sign that the U.S. has this as a goal. Moreover, this approach is the most effective way to divide Al-Qaeda from the Taliban and the Punjabi/Kashmiri Jihadi’s. Without some improvement in America’s image, to be accomplished by quick, visible action regarding Kashmir and the Israel-Palestine conflict, no one – not the Pakistani Army, NATO, the American forces – can win against this rapidly spreading and deadly virus. Settling the Kashmir issue is not a losing proposition for India either, since the disastrous consequences of failing to do so through a negotiated settlement are becoming increasing clear. This refers not only to the nuclear threat but to the nexuses of Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and Jihadist groups that could, in the long run, gobble up both Pakistan and India.

Meanwhile, events such as the suicide bombing of the Mosque in Dir and the PC hotel in Peshawar, as well as the assassination of moderate religious scholars in Lahore, are tarnishing the image of the Taliban. The people of Pakistan are responding with growing resolve and increasing support for the army’s operations against Taliban militants and other extremists. Winning the hearts and minds of the public is one of the most challenging tasks involved in the war against terrorism, but it is esse

 

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