Sunday, September 21, 2008

Marriot Hotel In In Pakistan Bombed; 53 Dead and Rising

The Islamabad Marriot Hotel, a major gathering place and watering hole for westerners and Pakistan's elite was destroyed by a truck bomb yesterday. So far, the death toll is 53, including two Americans and the Czechoslovakian ambassador. Over 250 people were injured, a number of them critically.

The heavy truck rammed a steel barrier and detonated less than sixty feet from the hotel's entrance. According to Pakistan's acting top security official, Rehman Malik, the truck contained an estimated 1,300 pounds of military-grade explosives including RDX and potassium chloride as well as artillery and mortar shells and left a crater 59 feet wide and 24 feet deep in front of the main building.The bomb also contained aluminum powder, designed to cause the fire that gutted the hotel.

The attack was designed to produce maximum casualties, occurring at the height of the dinner hour following the Ramadan fast. The entire ceiling of the main banqueting hall collapsed, burying 500 guests at a banquet that was supposed to have included Pakistan's president and prime minister, who changed plans at were not in the building. Just a few hours ago and half a mile away from the Marriott, Pakistan's new president Asif Ali Zardari made his first official address to parliament and pledged to fight both terrorism to resist violations of the country's sovereignty, a clear reference to the recent US raids in Waziristan against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets.

"We will not tolerate the violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity by any power in the name of combating terrorism," he said, as legislators thumped their desks and cheered in support.

The attack was obviously a message to Zardari and the Pakistanis from the Taliban and al-Qaeda...first, that they can reach out anywhere, even if the heart of Pakistan's capitol and second, to end any cooperation with the Americans or pay the price.

The attack occurred one year to the day from the time when Osama bin-Laden called for a jihad against the Pakistan's government. Last month, in a video release al-Qaeda's No. 2 Sheik Ayman al-Zawahri accused Pakistan's new leaders of being tools of the US and called for their destruction.

Part of the problem is the fact that the Taliban and al-Qaeda still have substantial support among Pakistan's security establishment, especially in the ISI, Pakistan's equivalent of MI5 or the CIA.

A blatant attack like this could have one of two results;either increased ties with the US and renewed cooperation to root the Taliban and al-Qaeda out of Waziristan or another de facto cease fire that allows them to operate with impunity as long as they leave Pakistan's ruling class alone.

I'd place my bets on option number 2. As I've pointed out before, the aid money we give Pakistan is a bribe to allow supplies to flow from Pakistan's ports to our forces in Afghanistan, and the Pakistanis need to do little more to keep the money coming in.

The big question, of course, is how long the US is going to allow this situation to continue. The Taliban and al-Qaeda have bases within easy reach of Pakistan's nuclear facilities, and I'd call this a pretty volatile situation at best.

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