KARACHI—The deadly terrorist bombing that destroyed Islamabad's Marriott hotel has left Pakistan's newly elected civilian government caught between two competing pressures—to crush Taliban and al Qaeda militants using its lawless tribal regions as an operating base while at the same time distancing itself from the unpopular U.S. government, which is the most public advocate of such a crackdown.
By dispatching suicide bombers to the capital—and particularly to such a high-profile target—the extremists appear to be continuing their bid to force the Pakistani government to halt ongoing military operations in the troubled region, which borders neighboring Afghanistan.
But the bombing, which killed some 57 people—most of them ordinary Pakistanis—is being dubbed as the "9/11 of Pakistan," and is seen by many as a declaration of war on the part of local Taliban. It has also suddenly changed the tone of the government leaders who until recently have been publicly mulling peace deals with the militants.
"Either we have to fight the Taliban or surrender the country to them," Rehman Malik, the interior minister, said in the wake of the attack. "If you don't want your coming generations to be brought up under fire and arms, then you have to fight them unless they surrender."
Pakistan announced plans to send more troops, backed by helicopter gunships, to the troubled areas to accelerate the ongoing operations in respective areas.
So far, no credible group has claimed responsibility for the bombing, although security and government officials point fingers at pro-al Qaeda Taliban militants, led by tribal figure Baitullah Mehsud, who have been engaged in fierce clashes with the security forces in the lawless northwestern region of Waziristan. Other officials suggested it may be an al Qaeda plot.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told reporters that the actual target of the suicide bomber was the joint session of the parliament, which met on Saturday to hear the maiden speech of the country's newly elected president, Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the slain Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was killed in a blast on Dec. 27, 2007, in the garrison city of Rawalpindi at a public meeting. But because of strict security measures, Gilani added, the bomber riding an explosive-laden truck could not enter the high security zone, and consequently decided to blow up the five-story hotel building.
But Malik offered a contradictory assessment, insisting that the Marriott was the bomber's intended target because Zardari, Gilani, and many of Pakistan's most senior officials were invited to a dinner at the hotel. They escaped when the venue was changed at the last minute. Even this account appears questionable, however, because a spokesman for the hotel's owner has denied that any dinner was planned.
Meanwhile, a competing theory suggests that the hotel was targeted because the militants believed there were U.S. marines at the hotel. Indeed, two Americans employed by the U.S. Department of Defense were killed in the blast.
Whatever the target, many local analysts believe that the militants are trying to send a clear message to the government that if it continues to chase them, they will hit the heart of the country.
"This is a clear-cut message from militants to the government that if it continues to bow to the U.S. pressure to do more against them, then they will apply their pressure in the form of suicide bombings like that," says Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general. "Talks are now impossible with those who are behind such inhuman acts and are trying to establish a state within the state."
But he is also skeptical about the government's current strategy to overcome the militants. "There must be a follow-up strategy to bring permanent peace in the tribal belt," says Masood. "At the moment, the government has no concrete plans as what would it do if militants are overwhelmed and flee. They will resurface after the military operation ends. You can't continue the operation forever."