The huge car bomb blast on Wednesday in a crowded market in Peshawar, capital of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, emphasized the extent of the terrorist threat facing Pakistanis as well as the success of Islamist media manipulation.
The Peshawar attack, the latest and most savage to rock Pakistan this month, left almost 200 people dead. Already in “bloody” October, about 190 persons perished in Pakistan’s terrorist carnage. But Wednesday’s bombing differed from the others in one important aspect: The deadly explosion was timed to coincide with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s first ever visit to Pakistan.
The attack’s coincidental timing, on one level, was meant to score a media success for Pakistan’s extremist forces. It served both to tarnish the Clinton visit and highlight the precariousness of the host country’s security situation. For the Islamists, it was a much needed victory.
The Pakistani Taliban and their radical Islamic allies are currently engaged in a desperate struggle with the Pakistani army in their South Waziristan stronghold and are not doing well. Government soldiers recently overran Kotkai, the hometown of Pakistani Taliban chief Hakeemullah Mehsud, and are pressing their advance into Taliban-held areas near the Afghanistan border. Since the offensive began last October 17, 160 Taliban fighters have been reported killed as opposed to 24 army fatalities.
But the Islamists are media savvy and have already demonstrated this ability to help their cause in the Afghanistan conflict. The Afghan Taliban, which cannot stand up to Western alliance soldiers in battle, lessened their enemy’s effectiveness by successfully manipulating the Western media into portraying NATO-related civilian casualties as scandalous.
As a result, NATO forces had to change their rules of engagement, restricting military action when Afghan civilians are present. In turn, this affected operations and is reported to have lowered the soldiers’ morale. Before killing one Taliban leader travelling in a car, for example, the British warplane tracking him had to let him go several times because of his proximity to civilians.
Taliban fighters not only hide now among civilians, knowing their presence protects them from NATO retaliation, they also take human shields, often unwilling ones, with them on operations. And even if NATO forces defeat the Taliban, inadvertently killing civilians in the process, the Western troops still lose since the enemy always turns the dead civilians into a propaganda victory.
This media success has emboldened the Taliban to progress beyond human shields and use children more often in operations. The Islamists know the rules of engagement make it difficult for NATO troops to shoot when children are present.
According to a story in a Canadian newspaper, since last March, the Canadian military has recorded 29 incidents involving children helping the Taliban. Their activities have ranged from acting as lookouts to planting roadside bombs. One 15 year-old was caught planting an IED while his four-year-old brother watched. A 12 year-old spotted by a helicopter doing the same thing ran into a nearby tent and emerged holding a baby as a human shield.
But Wednesday’s Peshawar market bombing was more than just an attempt to embarrass Clinton and the Pakistani government. By high-profile assassinations and attacks on important institutions like police headquarters, a university and army headquarters, the terrorists are endeavouring to create an image through the media that the government is powerless to control the civil unrest and cannot defend itself, let alone its citizens.
After terrorist attacks, Pakistanis are left questioning government security measures, especially the efficacy of the numerous inconvenient checkpoints and roadblocks they have to negotiate every day. One observer pointed out the vehicles backed up at such choke points actually make a tempting target for a terrorist attack. Some Pakistanis now say they fear to go outside, while others have introduced their own security measures, such as hiring snipers and sandbagging buildings and schools.
To counter the terrorists’ media manipulation and the “fear psychosis” it is creating in the country of 160 million people, Pakistan’s Information Minister asked the electronic media on Wednesday “to avoid live coverage of terrorist attacks and rescue activities.” These images, the minister said, caused “depression” among the people. The issue of media coverage is apparently of such importance, the minister has asked media organizations for their cooperation, since “the government does not want to force its decision.”
The selection of Wednesday’s bombing target, Peshawar’s Meena market, would also not be lost on Pakistanis. The Meena market is described as selling “mostly women’s merchandise.” Which explains why most of the victims were women and children.
Besides being a manifestation of the Islamists’ hatred for the Pakistani government and for America, the attack was also a sign of their well-known hatred for women. The Taliban do not believe women should venture out of the home unaccompanied by a male relative. The Meena market tragedy would inform them what might happen if they do.
Combined with the double suicide bombings at Islamabad’s International Islamic University last week, observers fear the terrorists have switched tactics and are now targeting women. In the university attack, the cafeteria for female students was blown up at lunch time, killing four people, including two women. Students angry with government security measures stoned a minister who showed up after the attack.
With their latest barbarous terrorist strike, Pakistan’s Islamists want to portray their country’s situation as apocalyptic and are doing this through a well-planned series of terrorist attacks and a sophisticated manipulation of the media. In reality, the terrorists are hard-pressed in their tribal strongholds, proving unable to stand up to the attacking Pakistani army. Terrorism has always been the weapon of the weak.
Since Pakistan is obviously in a state of war, some restriction on media coverage is called for, since it is affecting the conflict’s course to the country’s detriment. The attack on the women of the Meena market was an attack on Pakistan’s “way of life”, a way that could disappear if this war of words and images is lost.