The attack on the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar was a major attack that will have important implications for the counter-insurgency in Pakistan. This is an issue that could have a ripple effect felt worldwide.
Hotels can be important symbolic targets. The Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, which was bombed in September 2008, was a gathering place for Pakistan’s elite (and a prominent watering hole for those Pakistanis who took a casual attitude towards Muslim restrictions on alcohol) as well as symbolizing the casual modern worldliness of this globalized age. This was also reflected in the Mumbai attackers targeting prominent hotels.
The attack on the Pearl had fewer casualties then the Marriott bombing, but may have been more sophisticated – employing gunmen to pin down the guards allowing the truck bomb to get closer to the hotel.
The Peshawar bombing may also prove more significant historically then the Marriott bombing. Pakistani elites can find other places to drink. But the Pearl Continental was the primary base of operations for NGOs bringing relief to Pakistan’s massive internal refugee crisis, and reportedly the U.S. was looking to use it as a consulate. This will be a tremendous blow to efforts to bring relief to Pakistan’s massive internal refugee crisis. This crisis is a golden opportunity for whoever can respond first. Nothing did more to benefit U.S. standing in Pakistan than the 2005 relief efforts after an earthquake rocked Kashmir. On the other hand, the Afghan Taliban actually got its start in the camps of refugees fleeing Afghanistan’s terrible civil war.
So far, the fighting in Pakistan has not led to massive refugee camps. Pakistanis are opening up their homes to the refugees (a tremendous tribute to the fundamental decency of so many of the Pakistani people). This creates opportunities for creative relief programs, but there is also the danger that the refugees will wear out their welcome if they are displaced for too long.
There is much as stake in this crisis, and it is very difficult for governments and NGOs to respond effectively without adequate operating facilities. With the Pearl Intercontinental closed, Peshawar is not exactly brimming with secure alternatives with the necessary modern facilities.
The Pakistani Army is fighting for real and appears to be winning battles. But the refugees could prove to be a critical mass in this conflict and for the future of the Pakistani state. On this critical front Taliban have seized the initiative.
Update and Correction
Initially I wrote that it was the Pearl Intercontinental Hotel that was bombed. It was not, it was the Pearl Continental Hotel, which has no connection to the Intercontinental Hotel and Resort chain.
UNHCR has announced that its work in Pakistan will continue. This is, of course, to their credit a UNHCR staffer was killed in the bombing. But it should be emphasized that even granted UNHCR steadfastness – the loss is logistical. Without secure, modern facilities these groups will have difficulty functioning.
The news has also been, somewhat, superseded by the suicide bomber attack on a leading Barelvi cleric in Lahore. The split between the Barelvis, the local relative “moderate” interpretation of Islam that prevails in Pakistan, and the Deobandis and Ahl Hadith interpretations is yet another of the complex layer cake of splits and feuds that shape Pakistan. The government has been trying to build a coalition of moderate clerics to support its campaign against the Taliban. The Taliban, like any insurgency, is systematically targeting key individuals that can rally public support against it.