In Islamabad, a Sense of Foreboding

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 27, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, April 26 -- Every spring, the Margalla Hills overlooking this capital city burst into life. Evening thunderstorms send torrents of water down the slopes, scenic paths attract hikers and picnickers, and bands of monkeys scramble down from the trees to watch the weekend visitors.

But this season, the forested ridges have taken on a new, ominous significance for jittery residents. Suddenly, the hills are being depicted as the last barrier to hordes of Islamist insurgents sweeping south from the Afghan border and as perfect places for suicide bombers to lurk.

"If the Taliban continue to move at this pace, they will soon be knocking at the doors of Islamabad. The Margalla Hills seem to be the only hurdle in their march toward the federal capital," Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a religious party leader, warned last week in a speech to Parliament. He was exaggerating for effect, but the image struck home.

Islamabad, a placid, park-filled city of 1.5 million people, was built in the 1960s as a symbol of Pakistan's modern and democratic aspirations. Its boulevards are lined with grandiose federal buildings, and its shady side streets are home to an elite class of politicians and professionals. Until several years ago, the orderly capital seemed immune to the religious violence that bedeviled the country's wilder rural fringes.

But now, a psychosis of fear has gripped the Pakistani capital, driven partly by recent televised images of turbaned Taliban fighters occupying town after town in the northwest districts of Swat, Shangla and Buner -- as close as 60 miles from Islamabad -- and partly by a rash of bombings and threats in the quiet, heavily policed federal district.

Private schools that cater to international and wealthy families have installed security cameras and gun turrets; many are losing foreign students as embassies and agencies send families home. The local World Bank office just moved into the heavily guarded Serena Hotel.

Police barricades, detours and checkpoints are sprouting so fast that drivers barely have time to learn the new traffic patterns. Without a foreign passport or a VIP license plate, it is almost impossible to enter the federal district that includes the Supreme Court, the Parliament and the diplomatic enclave.

"We're not going to let anyone come and capture Islamabad, but we have too few resources to secure the city," said Nasir Aftab, the superintendent of police, his eyes red after a night of little sleep. "We need more weapons and men. We need explosive detectors and vehicle scanners on the highway entrances. If a mullah tells a boy of 15 to blow himself up, how do you stop him? This is the capital, and we don't even have a sniffer dog."

It is the insidiousness of suicide bombers, more than the bravado of gun-toting Taliban troops, that keeps officials such as Aftab up at night. The biggest bombing yet here was in September, when a truck full of explosives rammed into the luxury Marriott Hotel, killing 52 people.

The hotel has since reopened, and the lobby has been restored to its former elegance. But the inviting scene is hidden behind blast walls, and the doormen who once swept open wide glass portals guard a narrow opening with a huge metal detector.

"Sometimes I think we've overdone it. The hotel looks like a fortress, but security has to be our top priority," said Zulfikar Ahmed, the Marriott's general manager. He said hotel occupancy had plunged to 40 percent of what it once was. "We maintain a calm atmosphere, but if something happens tomorrow, it will drop again," he said.

A less spectacular but equally worrisome attack occurred last month, when a young man approached an open camp for off-duty paramilitary guards, located in a small park in an upper-class residential area. The man blew himself up, killing himself and five guards.

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