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Pakistani anti-terror debate grows more urgent

Amid a series of suicide bombings across Pakistan, the anti-terrorism debate has grown more urgent than ever before.
Image: Emergency personnel inspect bomb blast site
Emergency response services inspect the site of a car bombing in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Thursday. The blast had targeted an anti-terrorism police squad building.Emilio Morenatti / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The television advertisement that debuted this week starts with a simple scene: A mother is waiting on a street corner for her child to get out of school. It looks like any other sunny day in any one of Pakistan's major cities.

Then the car bomb explodes.

The grisly scene is followed by a simple message delivered by a series of glamorous-looking Pakistani celebrities, including movie stars, singers and artists: "We are not terrorists."

A year ago, a major ad campaign focused on the threat of terrorism in Pakistan would have been unthinkable. Pakistanis remain deeply divided over whether the war against Islamist extremism should be fought by Pakistan alone, with U.S. assistance or not at all.

But in the midst of a seemingly unending series of suicide bomb attacks across the country, the public debate over terrorism appears to be taking on a new sense of urgency.

On Thursday, Pakistani lawmakers met for a second day with the country's top security officials in a rare, closed-door parliamentary session devoted to the violence that has gripped the country. The unusual move follows a sharp rise in the number of U.S. missile strikes on alleged al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives in northwestern Pakistan, near the Afghan border.

Two missiles, believed to have been fired by a U.S. Predator drone, crashed into houses in Pakistan's remote tribal areas Thursday evening and killed at least six, Pakistani officials said. Officials in Washington, while not officially acknowledging a U.S. role, said the attacks are needed to combat insurgents whom the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to target.

'A divergence' in enemies?
But the strikes have inflamed tensions locally and have drawn rebukes from Pakistan's fledgling civilian government.

"We really have to define the enemy. I'm seeing a divergence in the enemies of the U.S. and the enemies of Pakistan," said opposition lawmaker Dastigir Khan. "The U.S. is not hitting the targets that Pakistan thinks need to be hit. There might be some sort of overlap, but mostly the U.S. enemies are different from Pakistan's. Pakistan is focused on these homegrown Taliban, whereas the U.S. has different targets in mind."

The rugged, ungoverned borderland between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a haven for Islamist insurgents from around the world. U.S. officials believe the area to be the hiding place of al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, among others.

A short drive away, in Islamabad, security for Pakistan's capital has never been tighter.

For several days, military helicopters have patrolled above the Parliament building. Police checkpoints have multiplied across the city, and barricades can be seen at nearly every major intersection. As if to punctuate the city's vulnerability, a suicide bomber bearing boxes of candy unleashed a powerful explosion in front of a police complex that housed members of the city's anti-terrorism squad only hours before Thursday's parliamentary session. Four people were injured in the attack.

Also on Thursday, a roadside bomb exploded in the northwest, killing 10 people, including four children.

Nearly three weeks after suicide bombers killed more than 50 people and injured scores in an attack at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, few here believe a solution to the security dilemma will be found quickly or easily.

Both the United Nations and the British Embassy recently ordered staff to send their families home and placed all of their employees on high alert.

At the U.N. headquarters in Islamabad, employees can no longer simply drive to work. They must negotiate their way on foot past a bevy of armed security guards posted about a quarter-block from the main entrance. Enormous military-style columns of sand, cement and wire mesh were erected to form a bunker around the building shortly after the Marriott attack. Steel plates cover the windows to protect against flying glass.

Amena Kamaal, chief spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Pakistan, said business would continue as usual despite those security changes. With tens of thousands of people displaced by the ongoing military offensive in Pakistan's tribal areas, humanitarian and development aid is sorely needed.

"We don't feel the work needs to be stopped. But we don't want to risk having our staff's children or families being in the wrong place at the wrong time," Kamaal said.

That sort of concern appears to be increasing for many Pakistanis, not just foreigners. But amid the fears, government officials have been conspicuously absent from public view. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has issued several recent statements about the nation's security concerns, but he has made no public address. Rehman Malik, Pakistan's top domestic security adviser, has also said little publicly about the government's plan to address the growing number of attacks in Islamabad and other major Pakistani cities.

By late Thursday, it was unclear what if anything would emerge from the briefing in Parliament by security officials, including the incoming intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha. Politicians are barred from discussing specifics of the briefing publicly. And when lawmakers meet again next week to discuss the intelligence briefing further, those sessions will probably be held out of public view.

Regular Pakistanis frustrated
The silence and lack of a coherent government response to the bombings have frustrated many Pakistanis. The multimillion-dollar ad campaign that calls on the country to "Say No to Terrorism" is only one sign of the dire turn in public perceptions of security.

"Whenever we see a car go speeding by, my brother and I are thinking: Maybe we should run. Maybe it's a suicide bomber in that car," said Asif Raza, a copy shop owner in the popular Melody Market.

Energetic and enterprising, Raza, 32, returned to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia several months ago to help his brother run the newly opened shop. When he arrived, Islamabad seemed like a different city from the one he left behind five years ago. Like many Pakistanis, Raza said he wonders whether it's time to quit the country altogether.

"We are very frustrated right now. It's as simple as that," he said. "What is the government doing? If they were doing what they were supposed to be doing, then we wouldn't have this security issue right now."