Fear now a Pakistani way of life

I was in Pakistan within days of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh raising the specter of another major terrorist strike in India from the Pakistani soil. I found some of my friends among Pakistani journalists who preach peace with India moving around with armed guards, barricaded government buildings and crowded bazaars sanitized hours before VIP movements.

In the battle zone that’s Pakistan, government installations and places frequented by visitors from the US and the West are at grave risk from the Taliban out to avenge Baitullah Mehsud’s death in a drone attack. The fear explains poor occupancy and drastically reduced rentals at luxury hotels in Lahore and Islamabad.

Islamabad’s Marriott isn’t any more the hotspot for the city’s movers and shakers. The hotel hasn’t recovered from the September 2008 bombing that robbed it of its high-end clientele including businessmen, politicos and diplomats. People feel safer dining at home or at stand-alone restaurants; the demand greater for guesthouses with lesser facilities and higher tariffs.

Even un-starred hotels with foreign clientele are similarly threatened. Lahore’s Presidency where I stayed is a cozy little place with a spa/gym and a diet menu that’s a hit with the firangi crowd. But it was quite unsettling to see armed guards at approach roads to the redbrick structure off the Lahore canal. A firing squad was also positioned at the rooftop.

“What’s all this about,” I asked a friend who had organized the booking for me. “The place is under threat because it’s frequented by goras (westerners),” he said.

Security concerns are as much palpable at VIP abodes— Asif Zardari rarely moving out of his presidential quarters and former Premier Nawaz Sharif feeling safer at his heavily-guarded farmhouse near Lahore. Several foreign missions have either reduced staff or have reinforced security.

Quite symbolic of an entrapped Islamabad is the jungle of concertina wires at the approach road to the diplomatic enclave. The web’s of Pakistan’s own making. But a web it is!

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