The Peshawar Problem
The Peshawar Problem
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

The Peshawar Problem

Working on the International Crisis Group's recent report on Pakistan's internally displaced persons, our team met with Western officials at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar. Had it not been for my trip to Washington to speak with U.S. officials about their Af-Pak strategy, there is a good chance that I would have been there last Tuesday, June 9, when terrorists blasted a hole through the building, killing more than a dozen people.

The attackers had a sophisticated, carefully orchestrated strategy. They gunned down the civilian police guarding the hotel's perimeter, which enabled them to drive past the cement barriers and overtake the private guards within the hotel. Once inside, they blew themselves up and much of the hotel with them. It looked just like the attack on the Marriott in Islamabad last September, just like the Taj Mahal Palace and the Oberoi Trident hotels in Mumbai last November, and just like the attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul in January 2008, which I witnessed from my hotel room there.

The similarities are no coincidence. All the targets have been luxury hotels frequented by foreigners. Every attack has taken advantage of weaknesses in the local infrastructure. Nor was the timing of the attack on the Pearl Continental an accident. Employees from the United Nations, the World Food Program, and numerous aid organizations were staying there. Many of them were charged with helping the 3 million people who have been displaced in the last month alone. These now internally displaced people (IDPs) fled on just a few hours notice -- before a military offensive meant to "flush out" the terrorists in the North-west Frontier Province's Malakand district unleashed heavy artillery, helicopter gunships, and jetfighters against their homes and crops. They left without possessions, and these usually mountain dwellers arrived unprepared for the scorching plains climate. The attack on the Pearl Continental forced international agencies to withdraw their international staff from Peshawar, disrupting assistance to the hundreds of thousands now living in government-run camps.

The IDP situation matters for more than its very real status as a humanitarian crisis. Between 80 and 90 percent of the IDPs are not in the camps; they are bunking with overstretched relatives and friends who receive no outside aid whatsoever. If the international community responds to their needs, these IDPs could present a potentially powerful constituency of civil opposition to extremism. They fled their homes because they reject the militants' worldview. If and when peace returns, they, as a resident living in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas told Crisis Group, will be the robust civil society that is so badly needed in the conflict zones.
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If Pakistan and its international partners don't meet the needs of those taking refuge, the jihadists will. For a taste of what could happen, just take the October 2008 earthquake in Quetta. To this day, jihadi organizations are winning support by posing as relief groups, offering food, shelter, education, and salvation in one fell swoop. For many IDPs, these services will be their only option. It is not surprising that the terrorists have been so effective in Pakistan.

There are other vulnerabilities that militants exploit here, too. Aid and assistance is one; policing is even more important. Local police forces in the area of the attacks were and remain completely ill-equipped to contend with insurgents. They lack training, barriers, vehicles, modern weapons, and even guns. The underfunded police could do far more with all of these missing resources in hand. As proof, police forces have more frequently intervened and prevented more deadly attacks than their well-funded Army colleagues. If they were trained in counterinsurgency tactics and evidence collection, police could rightly treat and try militants as criminals. Today, the country's criminal prosecution rate stands at only 10 percent.

If the Peshawar attacks teach us anything, it is that, while the foot soldiers may be local militants, the brains behind the terrorist attacks are not. In 2009, there have been more terrorist attacks and more suicide bombings in Pakistan than in Iraq. For the masterminds behind the brutal violence, Pakistan is just the latest frontier in a global campaign.

Their broader goal is clear: terrorize and demoralize the public and the security agencies, and prevent vital services from reaching those who need it most. Al Qaeda and the Taliban's foothold on the tribal belt enables them to do just that. When the state fails to provide the services that civilians desperately need, the jihadists fill the void. The way that Pakistan, the United States, and other partners approach relief for the latest victims will determine what will emerge from the rubble: a strong civil society that stands in opposition to extremism, or a population beaten into compliance with the very forces tearing their country apart.

Also republished in National Public Radio
 

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