by Syed Shujaat Bukhari
For a moment I thought we have landed in different city as the “new look” of Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan belied my memories of previous visits. Fear and panic in this beautifully set up capital city is palpable.
Government is not taking any risk of allowing what they call “terrorists” to attack the top-level offices and installations. It is also devoting much of its time to strategy planning to keep the “rogue elements” at bay.
This priority has, however, left the President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani’s government almost “powerless”. For an outsider who has seen Islamabad humming with life with its landscape mixed with Western outlook and the local touch of hospitality, today it looks like a “garrison city” though presence of security forces is not ubiquitous like Srinagar.
But the battle against “terrorists” has changed its uniqueness with the important landmarks of Parliament, Supreme Court, Prime Minister’s office and house, various ministries and embassies laced with concertina wires making a visitor from Srinagar to feel at home. Barricades around these sensitive installations are common in the civil lines area so is the diversion of traffic. Checking of identity cards by police at various points is also a routine painting this magnificent city as disturbed one.
City’s five star hotels like Marriot (bombed a few years back) and Sarina look like highly important army installations. Mighty iron gates fitted with state of art anti-sabotage gadgets have made them a difficult place to enter. It took us more than 20 minutes to enter Sarina as many check points and X-ray machines are installed to detect arms and explosives. Local journalists told us that these hotels are permanently occupied by CIA operatives and other American officials who have made a permanent base in Islamabad. “That is why they are the targets of militants,” a journalist colleague said.
Built on Potahar Plateu in 1960, Islamabad was chosen as new capital of Pakistan by then President Ayub Khan to replace Karachi. Surrounded by scenic mountains, the dense forests add to its grace and beauty. A Greek firm of architects, Konstantinos Apostolos Doxiadis, designed the master plan of the city, which was based on a grid plan and triangular in shape, with its apex towards the Margalla Hills. It has been an attraction for foreigners in past though today also many of them dare to spent time here. But they are mainly the Americans and the foreign aid agencies and NGO workers.
We had a dinner in a posh area of Islamabad exactly where the Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was gunned down by his body guards. Even during late night hours many foreigners were enjoying the food and coffee but the fear writ large on the faces of locals. “This is by and large a secured area now. But you never know” said a friend. The area has round the clock surveillance by agencies who are not only there to thwart any attempt by terrorists but also to keep an eye on foreigners.
With Pakistani government making efforts to minimize the threat of “terrorists”, it is facing a challenge to scale down the intense anti-American wave in the country, which gave space to extremist elements to expand their terror activities. The May 23 attack on naval base in Karachi was a grim reminder for Islamabad about the moles the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan and Al Qaeda had developed within its defence structures. “It would not have been possible without the cooperation of some elements inside” a commentator wrote in a leading Pakistani newspaper.
While 2010 was considered to be the worst year of terror attacks, though the percentage with regard to number of attacks had gone down, but 2011 has seen intensified and well-targeted attacks. In Karachi alone 1500 people got killed in 2010 giving severe jolt to the businesses. This time the public anger is divided between the government and Army. After the killing of Osama Bin Laden, there are divergent views about Pakistan government’s functioning and its policy towards American presence. People do not mince words in condemning Washington’s unilateral action in Abbotabad but at the same time question the capability of its security apparatus in allowing them to “take over Pakistan”.
Today Pakistan is facing the worst ever crisis since it came into being in 1947. Apart from the serious challenge of tackling terror, its economy is on decline. Prices have shot up and the forex reserves have gone down. A common man is suffering and the government does not have time to find ways of mitigating them. But at the same time the country is showing its resilience to the biggest ever security threat it is facing.
The common refrain is that it is time for Pakistan to decide about the power centres. Since Army and ISI have been playing major role in its policy-making it has left the political leaderships rudderless over the decades. This divided mechanism of governance has given space not only to foreign powers to “rule us through proxy” but also helped extremists to grow. Becoming a major player in war against erstwhile USSR is seen as a blunder. Because it developed a vested interest among a section of Army and it established deep links with the violence at large. How long it will take Islamabad to get out of this morass is difficult to predict. But the country is on boil……
(The writer is a senior journalist working with The Hindu. He was recently in Pakistan and PaK)