PESHAWAR, Pakistan Nov. 12, 2009 -- There are no girls choosing colorful bangles, no women buying dresses anymore in the narrow, dusty, aisles of Mina bazaar, one of the few markets in this frontier town that used to cater to families.
Instead, most of the small, fragile shops are now piles of bricks, destroyed two weeks ago by a massive car bomb that gutted this crowded corner of the city. The explosion was one of the most violent acts of terrorism in Pakistan's history. The official death count was more than 110, but residents here say at least 60 more bodies were never found, obliterated in the blast.
But the depravity of a bomb clearly designed to kill as many people as possible did not stoke the city's anger at the Taliban, who have recently launched a wave of violence in and around the largest city in the country's volatile northwest.
The bomb seems to have done the opposite. Most people in this city blame the United States instead of radical Islamist militants for the increased violence. Some blame the U.S. for launching the attacks, or accuse the U.S. of pushing the Pakistani army into an operation against a Taliban that are fighting back with suicide attacks against mostly civilian targets.
In some ways, the anger at the U.S. is another example of Pakistani disenchantment with American policy that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was trying to defuse with her recent visit to Pakistan that began on the same day as the Mina bombing.
At a time when the Obama administration is debating its future policy in this region, the anger threatens to derail American counterterrorism and development efforts that U.S. officials admit can only succeed with popular support.
Shams ul Ameen, a property dealer, was walking into Mina bazaar when the bomb went off. The scene, he says, was like "doomsday." Days after the explosion, he said he found the body of a 4-year-old girl on a nearby roof.
Like many of the residents in this working class section of Peshawar, Ameen blamed a "foreign hand" for the violence, suggesting the United States, India or Afghanistan. Anyone but the Taliban.
"I don't think any Muslim could have done this. Muslims can't spill blood of Muslims," he says. "These are foreign forces. Hindus and white men together want to destroy Pakistan. This is an American trick. On the surface, they pretend to be friends, but they strike Muslims in the back."
Private U.S. Security Companies Fuel Distrust
On one of the alleyways leading out of the bazaar, an otherwise Urdu language banner has one word written in English: "Black Water." Peshawar is filled with rumors that the American security company, now known as Xe, has moved into this city. The sign describes as "tyranny" the fact that a local hotel has been sold to Xe.
(In fact, a deal between the U.S. consulate in Peshawar and the Pearl Continental Hotel fell apart after a massive suicide bombing there.)
Most of the distrust and anger at the United States seems to come from rumors of private security companies presence in major cities, opposition to CIA drone strikes in the tribal areas, a conviction that the U.S. is waging war against Pashtuns, the ethnic group living on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border, and feelings that the U.S. is trying to steal Pakistan's nuclear weapons.
Other than the CIA drone strikes, the U.S. denies any of the accusations are true, and public affairs officials in Islamabad have recently launched a new campaign trying to combat false rumors that appear in the Pakistani press.
But the Blackwater allegation is repeated not only in working class sections of Peshawar, but in elite drawing rooms as well. And it helps deflate enthusiasm for a military operation against the Taliban in South Waziristan, from where Pakistani officials say more than 80 percent of the country's attacks are hatched.
In a recent Gallup poll, 39 percent of Pakistanis said the war in South Waziristan was only America's war. And 35 percent of the country blamed the United States as being more responsible for the current crisis, while a smaller percentage blamed the Pakistani government and in third place was the Taliban.
Pakistani military officials say they can only successfully defeat the Taliban if they have public support. And they acknowledge that the U.S. unpopularity in Pakistan risks the shaky backing the military currently enjoys for its second major anti-Taliban operation of the year.
Anti-Americanism Threatens the U.S. Approach to Pakistan
"What we desire and what we have planned [is for this] to be seen as a pure Pakistani military operation without any outside interference or without any outside support. Because that is at the cost of public support," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the Pakistani military's chief spokesman. "The moment it gets connected with something outside, then the public starts getting other ideas."
The attack at Mina Bazaar was perhaps the single largest attempt to pierce support for the war. Pakistani officials argue the Taliban are incapable of taking on the military directly, and so they resort to guerilla tactics aimed at soft targets with little security.
Peshawar has particularly suffered since the operation began. Some 300 people have been killed in more than a half dozen attacks on markets, mosques, intersections and restaurants.
"The Taliban are trying to break our backs, and force the government to stop the operation," says Malik Naveed Khan, the police chief for Pakistans Northwest Frontier Province. "It is a bitter pill, but the will of the people will not be reduced."
The pill becomes more difficult to swallow when residents are convinced it's not only the Taliban who are behind the attacks, despite the fact that, according to local residents, the Taliban threatened the market in the days before the attack if shop owners did not stop women from shopping there.
Gul Jan walked through the market after the attack and says he saw bodies cut in half.
"We haven't seen anything like this in 100 years," he says. "This cannot happen without a foreign conspiracy."
The anti-American theories also threaten to derail the cornerstone of the Obama administrations "soft power" approach to Pakistan. U.S. officials say as they push the Pakistani military to take action against the Taliban and al Qaeda allies along the Afghan border, they want to also infuse the area with development money.
"The partnership between our countries is not limited to the halls of government," Clinton said in Islamabad on the day of the bombing. "In democracies, there has to be a partnership between the people and that is what I'm aiming to foster."
'The Taliban, the Indians, and the Americans. They are Playing a Game With Us'
But in the days before her visit, Pakistanis reacted with outrage to a bill that would provide them with $1.5 billion in economic aid.
Like many Pakistanis, Riaz Khan said he had no trust in American intentions even when theyre trying providing Pakistan with money designed to create jobs, roads, and increase education.
Khan, a driver in Peshawar, lost nine members of his family who had gone shopping for a wedding in Mina bazaar.
Where there used to be laughing and rooms full of women and children in his house, he says there is emptiness and silence today.
"The Taliban, the Indians, and the Americans. They are playing a game with us," he says.
Siraj ul Munir, whose Mina Bazaar shop was destroyed in the explosion, says the U.S. has helped ruin their futures.
"We are wondering what will become of our future generations who today ask us, 'Father, why do these bomb blasts take place? Who are these bombers?' We can't answer them," he says. "We are innocent people. Tell us what we did to deserve this. It's since the arrival of the Americans that there's been a spike in all this violence."