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The War Nerd / September 22, 2008
By Gary Brecher

This is my third entry on the big blast at the Islamabad Marriott. God, the name says it all: “Islamabad Marriott.” Talk about two words that don’t fit together very well. The town just wasn’t big enough for “Islamabad” and “Marriott,” especially when you see pictures of Marriott’s big sign, in fancy Disney letters. You can have an Islamabad or you can have a Marriott, but you can’t have both—not for long.

That’s one theory getting bounced around today about why the Marriott was hit: “this symbol of Western influence” just got in the Taleban/Al Qaeda’s face. But there are plenty of other theories getting time online. That’s today’s key lesson in War Nerding, 21st-century style: a computer monitor turns out to be a great vector for catching that ol’ Fog of War Keegan likes to talk up. Now me, I’m not a big fan of that Fog stuff, because (a) anybody with sense already knows war’s a messy, confused business; and (b) all it’s really good for as a theory is giving hometown commentators an excuse to trot out when their troops shoot up a bunch of villagers. But for a serious war nerd, that fog is what you get on Day 3 after a big event. Everybody’s pushing a theory, and you have to take it all in without believing any of it too much. That’s the tricky part.
Like yesterday I got a very interesting tip from a fan in India, who said that everybody on the Subcontinent knows that when a blast is done with “high-quality commercial explosive,” like this one, it’s a sure sign the blast is the work of the ISI, the Pakistani Intelligence Service. I checked this out and sure enough, there are a good few stories (story one, story two) about ISI agents caught with RDX, their favorite plastique.

Now, here’s another war-nerding tip: when you’re getting easy access to high-quality info like this from one side in a conflict with lots of PR on both sides, don’t get too cocky. You better consider if you’re getting that info TOO easily. What I mean is, looks to me like Indian intelligence is eager to pin all the plastique found from Lahore to Assam on the ISI. Of course that may be the truth; it really may be all ISI. They’re evil bastards, no doubt about that. You just have to stay cool and sort of calmly despise all sides, like a cop.
After sifting it through for a while, I’m inclined to say that even if all this info is coming from Indian intel, it’s basically sound: the ISI does have a track record of passing that play-dough around to its little friends in Kashmir, Assam and any other Indian region that wants to blow up a few officials.

And ISI has reason to be antsy at home in Pakistan right now. The new PM, Zardari, is pushing back against the ISI’s proxies in Waziristan, including the Pakistani Taleban chieftans who killed his wife. Remember the assassination of Benazir Bhutto? It sticks in my memory mainly for the hands-down dumbest official lie ever passed after a killing: the Pakistani security people said she’d died from hitting her head on the car door. Seriously. “That sniper had nothing to do with it! It was the fatal blow of an SUV’s cruel door-handle that killed the poor lady!” Well, that and a bullet to the head from a Taleban sniper or three.

So Zardari has reason to hate the Taleban, and the Taleban is the ISI’s proxy army. A proxy army is a wonderful thing to have, you know? The ISI can use Waziristan, way over against the Afghan border, like the Syrians use the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, as a summer camp for any insurgents they’re sponsoring. The ISI trains its favorite Kashmiri groups there, as well as its boys in Afghanistan.

When I say Zardari has reason to hate them, I don’t mean because they killed his wife. You have to get over the idea that the big players anywhere are personally attached to anybody but themselves and their tribes. Zardari is called Zardari because he’s the chief of the Zardari tribe, the way the heads of Scottish clans used to be called “THE Mc-This” or “THE Mc-That.” His grudge here is tribal, not personal. Maybe he and the late Benazir liked each other personally, I don’t know. I doubt it, but who knows? It was a dynastic marriage—think Europe in the old days. It wasn’t a romantic comedy. (That’s a funny idea, a romantic comedy in the Pakistani elite. Maybe I can sell that script.)

Zardari had promised to “crack down on terrorism” and some gullible reporters are saying that’s why Al Qaeda/Taleban hit Islamabad. But guys, every Pakistani PM ever born has said that, to keep the US aid flowing, and every Pakistani cabdriver has laughed out loud when the announcement came on his radio between Bollywood dance numbers. It don’t mean a thing. Zardari’s job was to talk from both sides of his mouth; he also said Pakistan will fight any US troops who cross the border to fight the Taleban inside Pakistan. That was for the home crowd; the “terrorism-fighting” noise was for the foreign-aid crowd. Neither remark means a thing.

What may mean something is that there’s a rumor the Pakistani leadership was originally going to have dinner at the Marriott the night it was bombed. The rumors got so serious Marriott HQ issued an official denial.
And if you follow the news carefully you know that there’s no proof as solid as an official denial. So it looks like yup, the new Zardari clique was going to have dinner at the hotel, then got nervous and retreated to the Palace instead. And there we are, back with our sad little suicide bomber, settling for second-best, all dressed up and nothing worth bombing except a few CIA brass. See, I knew Al Q wouldn’t be dumb enough to bomb the CIA. I knew they had to be after bigger game.

So if Zardari was the target, then Al Q decided he actually was going to act against their friends in the ISI, probably because the ISI passed the word to them, and they decided to take him out before he could get too comfortable in the job. Then the dinner got moved and…what happened then? It’s an interesting moment, in a Kiefer-Sutherland 24 way: you’re an ISI official and you just found out the PM’s dinner has been moved from the Marriott to the Palace. Meanwhile your proxies in the Taleban are sending a jihadi kamikaze (good name for a band, huh?) to the Marriott. Do you call it off? Apparently not, judging by that crater in the parking lot.

So why not? Well, terrorism isn’t necessarily about killing the enemy, or even an “enemy.” In Pakistan, you use a bomb to send a message. So even if the Prime Minister won’t be at the Marriott, the thought that he was supposed to be there, that he could’ve been the center of that crater, has a powerful what-you-might-call “deterrent” effect. He’ll think twice now before he pushes too hard to take back the TAFA.

There’s a great story that Saladin was about to start a campaign to wipe out the Ismaili Assassin sect in their mountain “eyries.” Then he woke up with a knife stuck right into the ground beside his head and a note: “Dear Mister Saladin, Please reconsider that campaign against us, Signed, Your Pals The Assassins.” The campaign was cancelled with hardly any delay.

That’s my guess about why they went ahead with the blast: even if Zardari wasn’t at the Marriott, it’s the thought that counts. The bomb was like that wake-up knife in Saladin’s pillow.

But all this is, like they say, “subject to change.” You’re seeing me about halfway through the sifting. In a normal War Nerd column I’d spare you all this “maybe” and “could be” stuff, but that’s the point of these Islamablogs, showing the process, like this seminar leader said once to my office, “the process is the point.” I don’t know what he meant by that, nobody was actually listening, but I’ll try anything once.

Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to

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