Suicide Bombings Lead To Mayhem In Pakistan

From an all-girls school to an air force base, Pakistan is being devastated by vast instances of suicide bombings. The attacks are widely seen as militant reprisals towards the Pakistani army, which is currently conducting a major offensive against militants from the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the tribal area of South Waziristan. Pakistani civilian Mina Hussain, a former school teacher for an all-girls school that was recently targeted, and Shuja Nawaz, of the South Asia Center for Atlantic Council of the United States, discuss turmoil in the region. Nawaz is currently attending a NATO seminar on Pakistan.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now we're going to go overseas, where suicide bomb attacks are taking lives and changing lives. In Iraq, over the weekend, two synchronized bomb attacks aimed at government offices killed at least 140 people and wounded at least 500 more.

We're going to go to Pakistan, where a wave of attacks has been unleashed in response to a government crackdown on the Taliban and al-Qaida. We're going to ask a young teacher and mother how the situation is affecting her. One of the targets of a recent attack was a girls' school.

But first, we're going to set the table by trying to understand why these attacks are taking place in Pakistan. Four Pakistani soldiers were killed today, where Pakistani troops are waging a large scale offensive against the Taliban. They've retaliated by targeting military installations, among other places. For perspective, we turn to Shuja Nawaz. He's the director of the South Asia Center, the Atlantic Council of the United States. He's currently in Brussels, participating in a NATO seminar and he joins us by phone now, from there. Shuja, thank you so much for speaking with us again.

Mr. SHUJA NAWAZ (Director, South Asia Center, the Atlantic Council, United States): Thank you.

MARTIN: So, please describe the government's current military initiative? What are they trying to accomplish and why was it initiated?

Mr. NAWAZ: Well, I think this is part of a series of events that took place over the last year, after the Taliban moved into the settled area of Pakistan and took over the area of Swat. The army went in and cleared them once. Then the army went back to barracks and the Taliban took over the valley of Swat again and committed some horrific acts, including one which provoked a lot of resentment within the country, where they were captured on a video camera flogging a young girl.

The army went back in with great force, cleared them and then the Taliban retaliated by attacking the Pakistan Army, as well as civilians throughout the country in the heartland. Following that, Pakistan and the United States combined their efforts and managed to eliminate the leader of the Pakistan Taliban movement - Baitullah Mehsud, through a drone attack. And then the battle was joined - I think this is the battle for Pakistan now, with massive public support in favor of the military against the random suicide attacks everywhere inside Pakistan.

MARTIN: And I was going to ask you about that. I mean, Pakistan has famously fractious domestic politics. And I wanted to ask, is there a political consensus behind this military initiative at this time from what you can tell?

Mr. NAWAZ: Absolutely. I think even as recent International Republican Institute poll showed, 90 percent of Pakistanis that were polled indicated that they were against extremism and religious violence. And especially after the attacks inside the heartland against civilian targets and within the last couple of weeks against even girls at university, the people seem to be favoring the military in a move to try and decapitate the Pakistani Taliban movement and to knock it off its balance.

MARTIN: Can you assess to this point the military strategy? Do you think it is one that is likely to bear fruit? What is the ultimate objective? Are they going to have to then, for want of a better word, occupy these areas at some point in order to maintain whatever success that they have achieved by going after the leadership? I guess what I'm asking is, what's the endgame scenario?

Mr. NAWAZ: I think the endgame is to restore some kind of normalcy to the border lands. However, the military is on its own, more or less, and that has been one of the drawbacks in this whole campaign, that instead of having a combined civilian and military campaign, where the military can clear the area and the civilians then come in and hold it and build it, this appears to be primarily a military campaign. And they may succeed, although it's going to be a hard slog. But holding that very rugged terrain, the military does not have the capacity nor the numbers. And I think that is going to be the test in months to come.

MARTIN: We understand that the fighting has already led to fairly large scale displacement. I mean, one figure that's been reported is that some 200,000 people have been displaced by the fighting. Where do they go and what happens to them now?

Mr. NAWAZ: Most of the people left early, when news of the impending attack was announced inadvertently and perhaps as a mistake by the president of Pakistan, as well as the interior minister, which gave a warning to the militants that the army was coming in. The estimate of about 200,000 internally displaced persons leaving South Waziristan and moving into the settled area of the North-West Frontier Province is about accurate.

It does not appear that enough preparations were made to accommodate the people. The wrong assumption in my view was that most of them, as was the case in the displaced persons from Swat, would be taken care of by the local population. That apparently has not been the case. People are wary that some of the militants themselves may be smuggling themselves into the settled area with the displaced persons and are very scared of having them in their homes.

MARTIN: Shuja, finally, at the beginning of our conversation, you said that this is the battle for Pakistan. What do you mean by that?

Mr. NAWAZ: Pakistan has to recognize and I think is now recognizing that it is no longer fighting on the frontier alone in support of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, for which it had sent in troops to the border region originally. It has to realize now that it's fighting a battle against militancy inside Pakistan, where a small unrepresentative group is using arms and violence to try and control the country. And if it does not win this fight, then the country faces a very serious problem in years to come.

MARTIN: Shuja Nawaz, is the director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council of the United States. He was kind enough to join us by phone from Brussels, where he's participating in a NATO seminar on Pakistan. Shuja, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. NAWAZ: My pleasure.

MARTIN: In Pakistan, as we've said targets for suicide attacks have been wide-ranging -from an aeronautical manufacturing complex to an all girls school. We wanted to know how people are reacting to all this, how it's affecting their lives. So, we called a number of people who lived in Lahore, that's the second largest city in Pakistan after the capital of Karachi. It's often called the cultural heart of Pakistan.

We called a number of students and professionals and others for their perspective on how these attacks are affecting them. We found the phone lines of widely varying quality and we finally reached Meena Hussain(ph). She's a school teacher at an all girls school who's currently on leave, taking care of a newborn baby girl. Meena, thank you so much for joining us and congratulations on the new baby.

Ms. MEENA HUSSAIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, tell me, how have you heard about these attacks? Have they been widely publicized, are they very much in the news?

Ms. HUSSAIN: Oh, absolutely. Here we have a lot of news channels going on now, so there's a bit of wide range to choose from because it's (unintelligible) in Lahore, for example. And, you know, you have families, friends and loved ones. So even if you're not near a telly, someone will text or call and see if you're okay.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, you were teaching at a girls school until...

Ms. HUSSAIN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...the baby came and your baby is a little girl. Did you feel any special, like, what's the word I'm looking for - any kind of special anxiety when you realized that a girls school had been one of the targets?

Ms. HUSSAIN: It's not about whether it was a girls school or a boys school. The thing is that it was a school and there are students there. For me personally, as a teacher and writer and a literature person, I feel that a school or a university campus is some place where that's the only place you can be really, truly free, in your mind or to speak out and to have opinions. And I think the symbolism of putting a bomb in the school is what bothers me the most, which is everyday freedom. It's not somebody up north in Waziristan being bombed, or shooting people or blowing things up. It's right here in your backyard - it's in, you know, the city that's a four hour drive away.

MARTIN: How do you think this affecting your neighbors, your friends? And you know, obviously this is very, it's very frightening because it seems so - on the one hand, you're saying on the one hand, when they're attacking military installations, you can say okay, these are combatants, but now, this is civilians, it's children, it's teachers. How do you think it's affecting your friends and your neighbors, and just to do the degree that you can give a sense of what are people saying?

Ms. HUSSAIN: It's a mixed bag. We come with some Islamic baggage, in the sense that we believe that once people do, that you die when you're supposed to, when you're destined to. So that's a sense that, you know, if we're going to die when we have to, it doesn't matter whether you stay home or you go out shopping, or you go to school. You know, your time will come when it does. I think that now people are getting angry, because there was still some sympathy for the Taliban, and you know, the fact that, you know, maybe not all of them are so bad; or that, you know, the government should take care of this problem themselves and not necessarily seek help from an outside party. But now, everyone is angrier. If the Masouds are behind it, then they're really not (unintelligible), any scrap of legitimacy they had is gone now.

MARTIN: Well Mina Hussain, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms.�HUSSAIN: Not at all. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And congratulations again on the new baby.

Ms.�HUSSAIN: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Mina Hussain is a schoolteacher, and she's currently on maternity leave, taking care of her new daughter. She joined us by phone from Lahore.

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