Insecurity and Foreign Policy Affect Ordinary Lives in Pakistan

NATO says 2 choppers were shot at; Pakistan's reports of incident conflict.

September 25, 2008, 12:02 PM

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, September 25, 2008 -- Fear is taking away Mohammed Ahmed's business, Hamza Khan's hope, and Maheen and Shareen's education. It is the fear that follows terrorism all over the world, the fear that keeps people inside their homes instead of out at restaurants or shopping for their families. It is the fear that right now hangs over Pakistan's capital like an unwelcome fog.

"It was our national 9/11. It once again demonstrated that Pakistan is the great victim in the war on terror," President Asif Ali Zardari wrote in an editorial in the Boston Globe today, referring to the attack that ripped through Islamabad's best-known hotel the night of Sept. 20, killing 53 and injuring more than 270.

In Islamabad, nerves are on edge. "I think everybody's feeling insecure since the bombing," 57-year-old Munaf Sitar told ABC News while shopping in an Islamabad bakery. "I'm quite depressed, naturally."

"People are not willing to come out of their houses. We are sitting in the capital of Pakistan -- we didn't expect it to happen here," said Mohammed Ahmed, the manager of Islamabad's KFC, one of the few Western food chains in the capital. He says business has dropped more than 20 percent since the bombing. "It will take some time to heal."

For every person who died in the blast, there are 20,000 people who live here and felt it, whether it broke their windows, shook their homes or filled them with dread.

It is exactly what terrorists long for: pushing people inside, creating a society where everyone looks over his or her shoulders. To a certain extent, that already existed here. The Marriott itself was attacked twice before, a suicide car bomb exploded outside the Danish embassy in June and suicide bombers killed more than 70 workers outside an Army ammunitions factory in August.

But in this city, an explosion so large it was felt 15 miles away and the destruction of a gathering place for the elite less than one mile from the Parliament has struck deep into the national psyche. There are some people still shopping ahead of the Eid holiday, there are still some going out to dinner or coffee, but their numbers are greatly diminished. Many people here are fearful, many are angry and some are both.

And that fear is pervading every aspect of life here. Today security at Pakistan's airports was raised to its highest level. At the Islamabad airport, Col. Ashraf Faiz said an unidentified man called Pakistan's national airline and warned a suicide bomber was about to attack. "It was a specific threat," Faiz told reporters. "The airport is on red alert."

The attack failed to materialize, but the airport stopped allowing cars to park.

The U.S. embassy temporarily closed its consular services, including its visa office, and further restricted its U.S. employees from even visiting major hotels in the country's four largest cities.

And British Airways continues to say its flights from Pakistan will be indefinitely suspended.

"There's no hope at the moment," said Amna Khan, a designer purse wrapped around her shoulder as she was leaving an Islamabad drug store. The market is usually packed in the early evening, especially before Eid. Today it was sparsely filled. She blames the United States for the Marriott attack and for the state of her country.

"Pakistan was dragged into this war. We were not given an option after 9/11, especially when Bush said either you're with us or against us," she said. "American policies are biased and create a bitterness in the Muslim world."

Since the United States launched a major ground assault inside Pakistan on Sept. 3, anti-Americanism here has reached a crescendo. In his editorial Zardari reiterated that Pakistan would not accept any challenges to its sovereignty in the name of fighting terrorism. "Attacks that violate our sovereignty actually serve to empower the forces against which we mutually fight," he wrote.

It is a feeling felt across the country.

"We have our prestige, we have our sovereignty, and it should not be compromised at all," said 27-year-old Adnan Saraj as he sat at a high-end coffee shop in Islamabad. He sat with four young friends, all of whom said they respected the United States but opposed its policies. "America is saying OK, bomb here, bomb here. You know, this is not the way. It's the same if we go to America and we bomb America."

Reflecting that public sentiment, the Pakistani military has publicly pledged to fire on any foreign force that enters its country. This afternoon NATO said two of its helicopters were shot at with small arms fire from a Pakistani military outpost as they hovered in Afghanistan near the border.

A spokesman for the Pakistani military confirmed that its forces fired toward the helicopters, but insisted the aircraft were "well within" Pakistani territory and that the helicopters fired back. NATO denied that they returned fire.

In New York, Zardari, said Pakistani soldiers fired flares to make sure the helicopters knew they were straying into Pakistani territory.

Pakistanis strongly oppose suicide bombings, especially when they kill fellow Pakistanis and Muslims, as the Marriott bombing did. But the anti-Americanism threatens to challenge that opposition -- and even fuel a sympathy for the militants.

"It's not a good thing what they are doing, but they're doing it out of compulsion," said one Islamabad resident of the militants as he shopped for presents for his family. He said he opposed any military action against the militants -- exactly what the United States needs to be done in order to defeat terrorism.

"If my home was bombed," he said, "and my parents and brothers were killed, wouldn't I become a suicide bomber?"

As it suffers from terrorism, Pakistan also faces massive economic pain. Inflation here is higher than it's been in decades, and the government risks defaulting on its loans if its bank holdings do not increase.

Pakistan needs foreign investment and it needs people like 26-year-old Hamza Khan, who lived in Norway for 10 years until returning to Pakistan in 2007, to spend their money and improve the economy.

But he says he now wants to leave.

"I know for a fact that in the next six months, it's going to get even worse," he said in a European accent, sunglasses covering his eyes and a black Kangol cap on his head. "How can you bring your family back when these people are walking around? It's scary."

Many private schools in Islamabad will close from Friday until the end of the Eid holiday, next Thursday, because of the security situation.

For Malik Ameen, it just shows that he can't trust Islamabad right now.

"If this is the situation I don't think I will send my children to school even after Eid," he said. "I can't educate them at the cost of their life."

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