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In Pakistan, suicide bombings are part of rhythm of life

A decade ago, Peshawar’s bomb squad had it pretty easy.

Occasionally, one of its 20 members would be dispatched to a cornfield to defuse a mine planted by a villager who was feuding with his neighbor. Bombs were small and crude; the only tools an officer needed were pliers and a roll of electrical tape.

Because their budget was minuscule, the officers traveled by taxi.

Today, the squad careens through week after week of carnage and peril in this volatile city near the Afghan border. One day members are defusing a partially detonated explosive vest strapped to the torso of a dead militant, the next they are surveying evidence left behind by a teenage suicide bomber. The squad has grown to 113 members. Nine have died in the line of duty. At least five others have been maimed.

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“Everything changed drastically after 9/11,” said Khan Zada, a veteran of 17 years. “Now we’re on the go all of the time.”

Neither the men who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States nor any of Al Qaeda’s top leaders were from Pakistan. But much as 9/11 changed the way America viewed the world, it also cut deeply into Pakistan’s collective psyche. Pakistanis sum it up with a simple maxim: In Pakistan, they say, every day is 9/11.

Pakistan’s relations with the U.S. have for decades been tainted by mutual mistrust. In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, then-President Pervez Musharraf faced an ultimatum from Washington to cooperate in the drive to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and oust the Al Qaeda leader’s Taliban hosts in Afghanistan.

When Musharraf consented, however, he threatened a long, cozy relationship between Pakistani authorities and Islamic militants. As Pakistan began helping Washington’s campaign against the militants, it became a target itself. Analysts say that in the years since, some of Pakistan’s own policy choices have made matters worse.

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Ties between Pakistan’s military and intelligence community and Afghan Taliban leaders stretch back to the 1980s, when Pakistan and the CIA armed and backed many of those same figures as they fought Soviet occupation. Although the Pakistani government won’t acknowledge it, those ties still exist.

Moreover, the country’s primary spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, nurtured militant groups that targeted India in retaliation for its occupation of the disputed Kashmir region. Relationships with Islamic militant groups were a handy cudgel against external enemies that Pakistan did not want to openly confront. And until 9/11, those militant groups never viewed the Pakistani state as a villain.

That changed as the U.S. and its allies invaded Afghanistan, and Bin Laden and scores of militants streamed into the barren, lawless badlands of Pakistan’s tribal belt along the Afghan border.

In cooperation with the U.S., Pakistan captured Ramzi Binalshibh, a planner of the 9/11 attacks, in September 2002. Six months later, Inter-Services Intelligence arrested mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Meanwhile, Bin Laden disappeared in Pakistan, limiting himself to increasingly rare pronouncements until May, when Navy SEALs landed in his Abbottabad compound and killed him.

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And Pakistan started paying a heavy price.

Before 9/11, Pakistan had suffered just one suicide bombing — a 1995 attack on the Egyptian Embassy in the capital, Islamabad, that killed 15 people. In the last decade, suicide bombers have struck Pakistani targets more than 290 times, killing at least 4,600 people and injuring 10,000.

The country averaged nearly six terrorist attacks of various kinds each day in 2010, according to a report by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies.

A country that had regarded suicide bombs as a faraway problem suddenly found itself in the market for bomb disposal armor, bomb-sniffing dogs and blast walls. In Islamabad, which once had the pace and feel of a leafy suburb, metal detectors now greet patrons of a wide range of establishments, including fast-food restaurants and libraries.

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Today, Pakistanis wonder whether the young man next to them at a bazaar or neighborhood mosque is wearing a vest packed with explosives and ball bearings under his tunic.

Some, like Islamabad university student Aqif Naeem, stopped going to mosques altogether. “Now I just pray in my room,” Naeem said.

Resentment toward the U.S. has grown. Pakistanis blame the United States for much of what has gone wrong in their country: the rise in terrorist attacks, the deaths of Pakistani soldiers battling militants in the tribal areas, the country’s economic tailspin. Many are incensed by Washington’s campaign of drone strikes against militants in the tribal areas.

Although the strikes occur with the tacit consent of the government, many Pakistanis see them as a blatant violation of their country’s sovereignty — much as they did the raid that led to Bin Laden’s death, which the U.S. launched without informing Pakistani authorities.

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Anger boiled over this year with the arrest and subsequent release of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who shot and killed two Pakistani men he believed were trying to rob him. The case reinforced long-held beliefs that the country was crawling with American intelligence agents aiming to destabilize it.

For Pakistanis, said Cyril Almeida, a leading Pakistani columnist, “it was easy to connect the dots. 9/11 happened, America invaded Afghanistan, and Pakistan went to hell. That’s the most common narrative that’s offered.”

Pakistan’s leaders maintain that the alliance with the U.S. against Islamic militants has destroyed the country’s investment climate, caused widespread unemployment and ravaged productivity. The government estimates the alliance has cost it $67 billion over the last 10 years.

But it’s not as simple as that. Since 2001, the U.S. has sent Pakistan more than $20 billion in direct aid and military reimbursements. And from 2003 to 2007 under Musharraf, the economy grew at a robust rate of 6% a year.

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The Pakistani economy stalled along with those of many other countries in 2008 because of rising commodity prices and the global financial crisis. Under President Asif Ali Zardari, mismanagement and ballooning budget deficits have worsened the country’s plight. Zardari has done little to remedy electricity shortages that hamstring factories and businesses.

“It had nothing to do with 9/11,” Almeida said.

Some say the government shares blame for the rise in violence. Although it was Al Qaeda and its allies that nurtured the use of suicide bombing here, the military’s policy of clamping down on some Islamic militant groups while coddling others stoked the proliferation of violence.

U.S. leaders and analysts say Pakistan provides indirect support to the Afghan Taliban wing known as the Haqqani network, as well as Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group believed to be behind the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, that killed more than 160 people.

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The largest increase in suicide bombings in Pakistan occurred long after 9/11, in reaction to the decision to send troops into the Red Mosque in the heart of Islamabad in July 2007. Authorities were seeking to clamp down on radical clerics and students who openly called for holy war against America and the assassination of Musharraf. More than 100 people were killed in the siege.

Musharraf’s decision “to storm a complex that housed women and children — many of whom were killed — proved to be a powerful driver of suicide bombings in Pakistan,” Almeida said.

“There’s this ingrained sense of denial and a tendency to foist blame onto others for problems that are inherent to Pakistan,” he said. “Should we come clean? Yes. Will we come clean? No.”

Pakistanis might feel better about their future if they knew authorities had a sound strategy to eradicate the violence.

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But links between the state and some militant groups have yet to be severed. Terrorism suspects captured and put on trial are routinely released because of shoddy police work. And the government’s inability to establish the rule of law in the tribal areas ensures they remain a breeding ground for militancy.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the post-9/11 violence, said Naeem, the Islamabad student, is that Pakistanis seem to have grown accustomed to it.

“All over the world, people are shocked by bombings,” he said. “But here, we’re getting used to it. And that’s sad.”

alex.rodriguez@latimes.com


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