ISLAMABAD — The wounded cop lay in Surgical Ward Three with his head bandaged from the blast that embedded shrapnel in his skull, and he began to tell the story.
It’s a story about a relatively small bombing within the horrific spate of violence unfolding here, but one that serves as a kind of modern fable about the fateful struggle in which Pakistan now finds itself — and how it might just be turning a corner in that struggle.
Mohamed Tariq, 28, said he offered to give a lift home to his two close friends and fellow police officers but asked them to wait a few minutes while he attended evening prayers at the mosque adjacent to the Rescue 15 precinct house.
He took his place on a prayer mat alongside some 50 other men, mostly officers, gathered for the evening prayer. There was a loud explosion and a blast of hot air.
That’s all Tariq remembers. What he learned when he came to in the emergency room of Pakistan’s Institute of Medical Sciences was that his two good friends had stopped a suicide bomber from entering the gate of the police station, and blunted the impact of the first Taliban attack in the capital in many months.
The bomber still managed to pull the detonator cord on the explosives strapped to his body and kill the two police officers. Had the bomber made it just 10 steps further, he likely would have killed many, if not all, of the men at prayer.
Three others were wounded in the blast, but only the two officers, Tariq’s friends, “obtained martyrdom,” as the newscasters put it.
And so a suicide bomber claiming to be acting in the name of God tried to kill men of the law who were lining up for prayers until two heroic officers intervened and saved them all.
And there you have it. That is Pakistan today.
It is a country that is suddenly locked in a life-and-death struggle with a brand of Islamic militancy that is increasingly turning its rage inward on the country itself, even the prayerful.
It is a country that seems to be taking a stand — collectively and individually — against the Taliban and the militancy it breeds. People here from every level of society — policemen, politicians, journalists, religious leaders — all seem to have found a new consensus in the last two months to confront the militancy that is threatening their country.
Not all agree with the tactics of the military offensive underway in the Taliban stronghold of the Swat Valley. There, a massive conventional military operation is underway that has displaced more than two million Pakistanis in order to take the fight to an estimated 5,000 Taliban fighters. A human rights organization here claims 10,000 people have gone “missing” during the fighting. There are reports of some ending up in in a maze of underground prisons where torture is common and the rule of law is out the window.
In fact, there are still many here who disagree with the military’s tactics and its strategy. There is sustained outrage, for example, about the U.S. military’s drone missile attacks, which have indiscriminately killed civilians.
Still, it is getting harder in Pakistan to find anyone who doesn’t believe the Taliban has gotten out of control and needs to be stopped.
This was not the case the last time I was in Pakistan two years ago. I was reporting on the then-nascent movement that came to be known as the Pakistani Taliban.
It’s a strain of Islamic militancy that grew out of, but remains separate from, the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan Taliban emerged out of the refugee camps here in the mid 1990s and in later years eventually took power and provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
It was toppled after the U.S.-led invasion in the aftermath of the Sept. 11. The Taliban was then shattered and fragmented. Some remnants of the movement survived, regrouped and are now locked in a bloody insurgency against the U.S.-led occupying forces on the ground in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani Taliban emerged at first in support of their Pashtun brothers across the border. But increasingly, the Pakistani Taliban has turned against the Pakistani military, which has been pressured by Washington to crack down on the different streams that emerged in the rugged, tribal areas that straddle the border.
Just two years ago, many Pakistanis turned a blind eye and, on some level, supported the Pakistani Taliban’s proclaimed mission to carry out jihad against U.S. forces occupying Afghanistan. The Taliban were seen as a perfectly-acceptable opposition within a lazy and virulent anti-Americanism that was pervasive in the era of George W. Bush.
So what changed in the last few months? First, there may be the impact of the speech by President Barack Obama from Cairo last week, where he called for “a new beginning” in relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world. But most importantly, there was the barbaric acts of the Taliban.
Last week, they exploded a bomb outside a mosque and killed 30 people in the Dir Province in the northwest. They blew up the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad earlier this year. They have stepped up the burning of girls' schools, and they have exacted their own puritanical brand of Sharia, or Islamic law. In the remote hamlets of the Northwest Frontier Provinces of Swat and Dir and Waziristan, they have developed a mafia-like hold on society.
Chief of the Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said at a press conference “the tide has turned” on the Taliban in Swat due to the military offensive. U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, has applauded the shift in Pakistan.
The change in tone is apparent in the media here, which has shed much of its snide anti-Americanism and suddenly seems to have struck a note more akin to Fox News. It even has the same drum beat introductions to stories that glorify the acts of heroic soldiers with graphics, such as “Pakistan Fights Back.”
Even the conservative religious establishment in Pakistan has put its foot down. At an extraordinary conference held at the Serena Palace Hotel on Sunday, the top voices of Islamic fundamentalism, including Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the legendary firebrand cleric and founder of the Jamaat-i-Islami, spoke out against the Taliban.
Qazi dismissed the Pakistani Taliban as uneducated thugs who did not have the intellectual or theological grounding to understand Sharia, never mind proclaim to offer a new alternative to the legal system, grounded in Sharia, that Pakistan established more than 20 years ago.
And increasingly, the ranks of the secular intellectual elite are speaking out against the Taliban and in many cases supporting the military offensive against them as necessary.
I visited Pervez Hoodbhoy, a self-styled Pakistani version of Noam Chomsky, in his home as he verbally tangled with his 24-year-old daughter, Alia Amirali, who graduated from Hampshire College and has the nose ring to prove it.
“The secular left in this country has been pathologically anti-American,” he said, his daughter sitting next to him shaking her head in disagreement.
“Very unhealthy, very misguided. I think it comes from a need to blame our failures on others. … I think it’s good that the army has finally gotten its act together, a realization that territory has been lost,” he said.
Tariq, the cop recovering in the surgical ward, doesn’t talk politics. But he sees meaning in the fact that going to prayers is what saved him.
“These people who did this have nothing to do with Islam. Killing other Muslims, this is not Islam,” he said.
And he believes his spirit to the fight the Taliban and their warped interpretation of Islam will now have “more force within me,” as he puts it.
“I’m not afraid. None of us are afraid,” he said, as several friends with “anti terrorism unit” shirts gathered around him in support. “As soon as I’m better, I’ll get back to work.”