Shaken by increase in attacks since 2001, many Pakistanis fault U.S.
By Karin Brulliard,
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Muhammad Irfan Malik is a banker, and he relies on numbers to tell the story of his daughter’s death.
She was 17 years and 2 months old, a college student who had scored 800 out of 850 on high school graduation exams. On Oct. 20, 2009, she was with classmates in her university cafeteria when a suicide bomber detonated explosives that launched 46 ball bearings into her body. She died 43 days later, leaving her family to suffer incalculable grief.
But when casting blame, Malik turns to an equation that is common here — one that Pakistani officials often cite to explain why their country remains reluctant to fully confront Islamist militants despite acute pressure from the United States. Since 2001, when Islamabad partnered with Washington to combat the Taliban and al-Qaeda, there have been 335 suicide bombings in Pakistan. Before 2001, there was one.
If Pakistan had never allied with the United States, Malik surmised, bombings such as the one that killed his daughter might never have occurred.
“The government is siding with the United States,” Malik said, his eyes damp. “The people are not.”
Aqsa Malik was among more than 10,000 Pakistani civilians killed in a decade-long spiral of armed conflict, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies. The bloodshed has traumatized the national psyche, spawning chains of security checkpoints and robbing families of breadwinners and children.
To Washington, which provides Pakistan with billions of dollars in aid, the carnage should be enough to turn the country’s public and its power structure firmly against Islamist militancy. But to ordinary as well as influential Pakistanis, the view is far less clear.
“I have become so unsafe that sometimes I think I should have my family leave Pakistan,” said Hamid Mir, a popular television host, explaining the view of many Pakistanis. “Why is that? It is because of the American policies in Pakistan.”
A recent Pew Research Center survey found that a large majority of Pakistanis consider suicide bombings unjustifiable. But majorities also view the United States, with its campaign of frequent drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, as an enemy.
The 2009 suicide attack at the International Islamic University, which involved two assailants who killed at least nine people, was just one bombing among hundreds and hardly the deadliest. But discussions with survivors and relatives of those killed reveal much about the ambivalence among Pakistanis toward a war they have never claimed as their own.
Few targets have been as perplexing as the International Islamic University. The school is a conservative, gender-segregated institution that draws middle-class Pakistanis and other Muslims from around the world.
The first bomber struck the women’s cafeteria, where Aqsa Malik sat. Minutes later, translation major Waqar Khalid spotted an unfamiliar man in the hallway of the men’s law building, then felt a rush of heat. Khalid, 26, awoke on the floor, wondering whether his head was still connected to his body.
The Pakistani Taliban, which was waging a bombing spree in retaliation for a military offensive in the northwest, asserted responsibility, but questions persisted. Why would Muslims strike a Muslim university? The school’s rector, Fateh Mohammed Malik, said he thought it was clear: The Taliban didn’t approve of women’s education or the way sharia, or Islamic law, was being taught there.
But students staged a demonstration, carrying signs that betrayed confusion. “American/Indian/Taliban I don’t care!! My friends were martyred,” one read.
Among those killed was Amna Batool, 20, an English student and theater enthusiast who asked her father how she looked before leaving for school that morning. Syed Zubair Ashraf, 58, next saw her at the hospital, her skull ravaged by what he describes as “ball bearings and nails and other dirty materials.” Her death four days later left Ashraf, an editor of an Urdu research journal, without the will to write.
Ashraf has watched in recent years as blast walls and metal detectors sprouted across Islamabad, a sleepy capital city that once seemed immune from violence. Now, Ashraf said, it feels besieged by spies, and he cannot help but think that the U.S. presence in the region is fueling the attacks, not stopping them.
“I have read that Americans are peace-loving. But their government has interfered in every country. Why?” Ashraf said.
Many Pakistani analysts say it is too simplistic to blame the increase in attacks on the United States. Pakistan’s secular government has done little to reverse the Islamist ideology seeded throughout society by then-military dictator Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. To this day, the military battles some insurgent factions while avoiding others.
U.S. officials say Pakistan’s top intelligence agency still nurtures certain anti-India militant and Taliban groups; on Thursday, the top U.S. military official, Adm. Mike Mullen, said Pakistani spies actively support the Haqqani militant faction as a proxy for influence in Afghanistan, including by aiding its deadly attacks on American targets there.
While Islamist militants maintain a steady narrative — that the United States and, by extension, its allies are enemies of Islam — Pakistani leaders’ denunciations of extremism are often wavering and tepid, said Husnul Amin, an assistant professor of international relations at the International Islamic University.
“Society is in shock,” Amin said. “They know that something has happened to us, but they can’t analyze what and how. There is a gray area in which even an educated person is confused.”
The university attack left Khalid, the translation student, badly burned, and two of his friends dead. Today, he has a gentle smile and clear confidence. But he says being in crowds agitates him, and his pessimism about Pakistan has deepened. He said that young men have few job prospects and that his father, a policeman, struggles to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, Khalid said, the United States gives aid dollars to a Pakistani government that is widely viewed as corrupt and does little to help civilian victims of terrorism.
“What is the mistake of these families?” asked Khalid, who has formed a victims support group.
Muhammad Irfan Malik said his family remains “broken” two years after the bombing. He requested a transfer to a busier bank branch, to help distract him from his grief. His wife does not discuss Aqsa’s death at home, nor does she touch her late daughter’s belongings. Their three surviving children wanted to go to a park for the recent Muslim holiday of Eid, but Malik said such an activity is not safe in present-day Pakistan.
The family applied for compensation from the government, Malik said, but received no response. He never expected answers from the police.
“We feel that her martyrdom was in vain,” he said of Aqsa. “On the other hand, where can we go? At whose door can we seek justice?”
Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.