|Image: Bilash Rai|
Since late January, the sleepy, custom-built capital of Pakistan has seen a spate of suicide bombings. What was once the safest haven in a conflict-prone political and social zone is now besieged with security forces patrolling the streets, forcing residents of this gilded cage to own up to the reality that suddenly exists within its own borders.
On 26 January, a suicide bomber walked into a staff entrance of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, was intercepted by a security guard, and blew up them both. I was inside the hotel when the blast occurred, cocooned within its opulent surroundings. Had the blast occurred minutes later, I would have been crossing the street in the midst of the carnage. This fortuitous timing did not stop me from witnessing bits of charred flesh lying scattered on the road, however, as I ran out to join the crowd that had gathered. This was the first suicide bombing to have taken place in Islamabad.
Before there was time to absorb the intensity of the event, a second incident occurred on 6 February at the high-security Islamabad International Airport. Once again, the suicide bomber forced himself into the premises and, during an ensuing gun battle with airport security, detonated his explosive. And again, I was nearly at the scene, having arrived to board a Karachi flight barely an hour earlier.
These events were followed by at least four other bombings in or near Pakistan – including a suicide bombing at a district court in Quetta, and explosions on the Samjhauta Express train, which had been traveling from Delhi to Lahore. The infamous ‘they’ say that this is all just the beginning.
Personal proximity to two major violent events in Islamabad has brought several issues, both personal and professional, into new context for this writer. The concept of existentiality seems significantly out-of-place when, at one moment, you sit in a five-star hotel chatting gaily with friends, and the next moment you come across a served finger lying at your feet. Even more out of place is the fact that this finger belonged either to an unsuspecting security guard, who probably earned less than thirty dollars a month, or to a young, co-opted jihadi, brainwashed with notions of religious and political rebellion. Who should one question in such situations – oneself? The West? The ruling elite? It is virtually impossible to answer such questions when standing next to the severed finger of a total stranger.
Pakistan has always been a country of dichotomous extremes. Where else can you find women’s rights so abused, yet come across a group of armed, burqa-clad women who forcibly occupy a government-run children’s library for days on end? On 21 January, female students from the Hafsa madrassa of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid stormed into the library carrying rifles. Their demand was that the government rebuild their mosques – which had been built on illegal land in the first place – and to give up plans to demolish another 80 unauthorised mosques around the city. Army troops, rangers and police confronted the women and their thousands-strong group of supporters for days – only to finally give in to the demands. Before the agreement ink had dried, religious groups had begun to rebuild one of the demolished mosques on the same illegal land. Yet again, the so-called moderates had given in to the hardliners.
But that has always been the case, despite General Pervez Musharraf’s stance towards the religious right. Indeed, the threat of extremism is not nearly so ‘external’ as the Foreign Office would have Pakistani society believe. Cracking down on Osama bin Laden is no more of an eyewash for the Pakistani government than it is a cover for the United States’ own aims in the game of oil and global power. But the game grows deadlier as reasoning becomes increasingly blurred and the violence starts hitting closer to home.
10 km from Pakistan
Islamabad has never been the site of large-scale unrest. The picturesque capital has repeatedly been declared the safest city in Pakistan. Home to the country’s political, expatriate and diplomatic elite, Islamabad has long wowed its visitors with its immaculate boulevards and pristine environs. The city is now the most popular destination for those rich enough to escape the madness of strife-torn and polluted cites such as Karachi and Lahore.
Originally built to hold a population of only a few thousand, Islamabad now has to cater to nearly a million. With one of the highest urban growth rates in the country (six percent per year), land is becoming a scare commodity, and hills and forests are being bulldozed to make way for roads and underpasses. More than 150 new cars are registered daily in the capital alone. Enormous housing projects are taking over the outskirts of town, and what is left of the centre is being transformed into an avenue of multi-star hotels and parliamentarian lodges. Not even the Margalla Hills, the city’s landmark mountain range, is being spared – sale of land is soaring as more and more of the rich build their retirement homes on the slopes.
But Islamabad has always been viewed as being located “10 km out of Pakistan”. And truly, this massive growth and investment is in harsh contrast to the rest of the country, including the other major urban centres of Karachi and Lahore. More than half of Pakistan’s population is illiterate. The maternal mortality rate stands at 500 per 100,000 live births. Overall, some 50 percent of the rural population is considered vulnerable to chronic poverty. As if such indicators were not enough, the threat of militancy has significantly added to foreign attempts to de-link poverty from religious extremism, by implementing programmes attempting to alleviate poverty.
Islamabad is the seat of the major multilateral and bilateral lenders, the key financial and technical drivers of such programmes in Pakistan. The Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Word Bank, the British, Japanese, Canadians – all make their lending decisions seated among the elitist clique of the capital. Whether it is investment in energy and infrastructure, poverty alleviation and gender mainstreaming, or democracy and decentralisation, the world of international development in Islamabad is physically separated from the reality of rural and urban Pakistan.
Supposedly committed to transforming the country into a progressive and educated society (while always admitting that they have their own agendas), international donors have been firmly caught up within the fundamental dilemmas that now face both Pakistan as well as their own domestic agendas. Whether it is Tony Blair’s new priority of climate change or the US attempt to tackle religious subversion through education, the lending scenario in Pakistan is suddenly unclear and undefined. A major contributor to this is the fact that Pakistanis themselves are unable to define what they need, and the Islamabad location of decision-making does not seem to help.
Ensconced in the ‘security’ of Islamabad, and security threats notwithstanding, donors prefer investing in ‘safe’ projects such as micro-credit, health, education and gender training, which have more to show but little to deliver. Likewise, the arguments put forward by academic pundits that Pakistan’s progress depends on democratic political and judicial institutions have been met by the donors with equal failure. The ADB’s USD 350 million Access to Justice Programme and its USD 300 million Decentralisation Support Programme have both been rife with controversy since their 2003 inception, and are widely regarded as directionless. Both programmes are loans to the government of Pakistan, which already owes the ADB USD 6.5 billion. Similarly, the World Bank repeatedly and publicly warns the Islamabad government to clean up its act on many fronts. Yet when World Bank-funded projects lead to massive displacement, the multilateral body withdraws to the shadows of the ‘project document’.
Even as the political climate descends into further uncertainty, multilaterals and bilaterals continue simultaneously to chastise Pakistan for its faults and to invest heavily in it. The ADB is currently formulating a three-year, USD 4 billion development aid package – nearly a seven-fold increase over the USD 600 million packages it has offered in the past. The World Bank is likewise ready to offer almost USD 2 billion, to help rehabilitate Pakistan’s entire logistical network. Bilaterals such as the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) have doubled their aid budgets to Pakistan in 2006-07. It is not overly difficult, then, to make sense of this generosity, given that Pakistan is simultaneously branded as a ‘terror’ threat.
The distance of Islamabad from the country has provided the national power elite a sense of certitude. But being faced with the religious and political psyche that is suicide bombing and terror threats is something that throws all logic and consideration into flux. The connection between religious extremism and social development is a difficult one to explore. Poverty is either a cause or an effect of violence and extremism; in Pakistan, it is difficult to say which came first. But one thing is certain. Living in gilded cages, as our politicians, civil society and developmentalists do, is not going to help in solving the problem. Sadly, the residents of this gilded cage have now awoken to a harsh reality. One can only hope that they will remain awake.
~ Themrise Khan is a development consultant in Islamabad, as well as a freelance columnist.