Editor's Note: FNC's Greg Palkot is writing from Pakistan. Check out his series, "Dispatches from the Terror Front" and keep logging onto FOX Fan Blogs for the latest installment.
It's one of those decisions you make in this business and afterwards when you look back on it you can only say….hmmm.
The day before former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's fateful return to Karachi, I was speaking with my Foreign Editor Brian Knoblock on how we would cover the event. One thought was to stick with the motorcade for its full length, in a sort of "assassination watch," but when we heard that it could last ten to twenty hours, with Fox live shots beckoning, we opted to stay with it for the first three or four hours and then break away.
As it turned out, if we had gone with "Plan A" we might have gotten some spectacular pictures of the catastrophic terror attacks, but then again. if we had decided to do that, I might not be writing this now.
The blasts happened about fifty feet from where we were on a flatbed truck in the motorcade. And it happened just about two miles from where we left the route. Among those killed or injured in the bloody carnage, there were two cameramen who were among members of the media, .
In the terror analysis business, hindsight is always 20/20, but even without knowing Madame Bhutto's caravan would later turn into a catastrophe, my cameraman John Templeton and I could see that the whole thing was not exactly right ...
For one thing the motorcade was moving at a snail's pace and Bhutto's open topped vehicle was standing still for excruciatingly long periods of time. The main reason for that was the event organizers were allowing throngs of people and cars to fill up the path of the parade, forcing the vehicles to inch their way through the crowds. Those people and cars and trucks were also allowed to approach the former Prime Minister's truck completely unscreened by any security. And while the vehicle boasted a bulletproof container, Bhutto had dispensed with a protective glass enclosure for the top.
Finally, as John and I "legged it" ahead of the stalled Bhutto parade, we went down a few miles on the route to hook up with our transportation back to our live shot. We were surprised by the lack of just about any uniformed police. Anywhere. It seemed more like a very extended free-form street party, which turned ugly just hours later.
Back at the Sheraton Hotel in Karachi which was like a scene of terror attacks from a featured recent movie about the jihaidst killing of journalist Daniel Pearl. We did a few live shots in that area. After that, my Producer Maryam Sepehri was up on the roof, feeding out a story on the triumphal Bhutto return for Brit Hume's show. That's when I got a call from my "fixer" Zafar stating there had been an explosion along the route. We beat the news agencies by breaking the word to Fox in New York. And then as the minutes ticked by the news it got worse and worse. Injured….Dead….Terror.
We headed out as soon as we could, racing along roads that were crowded with speeding ambulances. After dodging several security cordons we approached the scene. It had the look of very ugly disaster. As we were walking there, we saw more ambulances, police, emergency workers, and then…..
You know we at Fox and the other media outlets spend a lot of time talking about terrorism. We interview armchair analysts, former military officers and spies, we even examine internet postings and GoogleEarth aerials. It just takes a couple of minutes more of walking, until we meet a real terror attack that reminds you what its all about.
On the patch of the six lane urban highway where the suicide bombers were struck, we realized it was covered with a paste of dirty red blood and congealed bits of body. The body parts were scattered all around with people accumulating them and carrying them away in blankets used as hammocks. There were scraps of clothing and shoes, which had obviously just flown off people due to the impact of the attack were everywhere.
There were cars all around the spot where the main bomb went off. The cars were simply charred and gnarled with blackened pieces of metal. Two open police vans were carrying security forces were also destroyed, Karachi police officers were among those killed.
Then, not more than twenty feet away, the tall truck/van, which was carrying Bhutto, was packed with shrapnel. Later we learned that at the time of the blast, Bhutto had left the open top area and was resting in an inside compartment. That was her good luck. There were many injured on top of the vehicle, that included her political party officials. Luckily, she escaped unharmed.
Eerily, the area was shrouded in darkness leaving the lights from emergency vehicles only. It happened just after midnight when all the street lights were out. Later, Bhutto claimed that it might have indicated a government assisted conspiracy to help cover up the terrorists' work. The government denied it.
As we filed phone reports, first to Shep, then to Neil, we looked around at the scene. We got vivid eyewitness accounts from the blast. First there was a small explosion, that we would later learn was probably a thrown hand grenade and then a massive blast occured. This would turn out to be the suicide bomber. After some thirty pounds of explosives packed with nuts and bolts were strapped to the fellow's chest, his head was blown off by the blast and were found jettisoned a good distance away.
Then, the mood got even uglier. A few people came up to us, shouting, "This is the War on Terror…This is it!!!" So, any thought of our lean team trying to set up a video phone and go live from the scene went out the window. The streets of Karachi have a reputation for being very "mean." Tonight they were definitely going in that direction.
So we headed back to the Sheraton to feed back material and do another round of live shots. With a nine hour time difference with New York we wouldn't stop until the sun rose and we wrapped up a 23 hour work day.
This explosive event wrapped up our three week visit to Pakistan. And sadly, it left us with more questions unanswered then when we first came here. Could full and free parliamentary elections be conducted as planned in January? Could Prime Minister Bhutto actually work cooperatively with Pakistan President Musharraf as the US has been hopping? Could democracy flourish in a country where terror is still rampant? And, could terrorism ever be tamed in this country? These are all questions for another trip. On that note, it's off to the airport for us.
Well, we finally got to Peshawar today, which is a border city near Afghanistan. With all the restrictions on movement in this country, it is the closest one can get to the fighting with the terrorists, even though those battles are actually happening south of here in a place called North Waziristan.
The fighting has been really bad, with Pakistani soldiers clashing with Taliban and Al Qaeda linked militants and other toughs. The battleground is exactly where Al Qaeda is said to have training camps sending out militants to hit American and other targets. It's also a place where it's believed that Al Qaeda biggies have been. UBL certainly passed through. His No. 2 Zawahiri was said to be there, and at least one number three has been there.
But, the big story was that the Pakistanis were actually fighting. The country has technically been in the fight against terrorists on and off since 9/11, but it's the off periods that have had the U.S. fuming. Especially in the last few years, where a peace deal with militants was seen by the U.S. as a "get out of jail and go crazy" card.
Now, diplomatic sources I speak with are hopeful that there has been a change, and that the Pakistanis might have finally decided to "step up to it." But turning the border area into a hostile zone for bad guys and not the safe haven it is now will take months, years, maybe longer. Some are not so sure Pakistan can do it. One western military source confided that he didn't think the country has the will or the capability to do this.
Probably the best place to get a sense of whether things are getting better or worse is out on the streets. I've been to Peshawar many times, but now it's increasingly been hit by terrorists. The mood here is tense. We did our stand up and took our shots as quickly as possible.
We were also able to reach a former security boss for the area. She knows the terrain well, and she's certain that Al Qaeda is behind the wave of violence that is sweeping the country.
Of course, I couldn't miss a stop like this without asking that old saw of a question "Where is bin Laden?" Well, Mehmood Shaw doesn't know either. He actually says he thinks the border zone is too full of military and he thinks a city is more likely. He didn't specify which! The hunt goes on ...
Today was a day of war and peace during our trip out here to Pakistan — or at least talk of the two.
I'll start with peace. We had a half hour sit-down with Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. He is an impressive guy. He was a high-flying investment guru for Citibank in the 90s, with a million dollar apartment overlooking Central Park. Then, Pakistan President Musharraf rang the native Pakistani up and told him to come back and salvage the country's economy. He did — with some help from other factors, like the general Asia boom and post-9/11 Western largesse.
Still, it’s a pretty good success story: annual growth rate in the 7 percent range; foreign investment basically doubling year on year; budgets and balance of payments in better shape; a growing middle class; and a Karachi stock market that just reached a historic high. "I'm bullish on Pakistan," Aziz noted.
We have heard griping on the street, about inflation and low wages. And, there are still political and security uncertainties ahead of Pakistan. But, according to Aziz, that’s found in a lot of countries.
As for Aziz’s own future, he claims he will run in the upcoming parliamentary elections, but he might have to make room for the retuning Benazir Bhutto. A lower profile might be best. He, like his boss President Musharraf, has been targeted by terrorists.
Which brings me to the war part of our day’s discussions. Following our meeting with the prime minister, we visited with Iqbal Cheema the anti-terror boss in the country. There are battles raging right now, near the border with Afghanistan, between Pakistani troops and assorted bad guys, such as local militants, Taliban, even Al Qaeda. The losses have been big — 200 insurgents claimed to have killed 50 soldiers, with soldiers hurt and kidnapped as well and civilians caught in the crossfire.
After a long time of either hanging back or formally making cease-fire deals with the militants, the Pakistanis are in the fight. One big reason is because the terrorists have been hitting Pakistan hard, and even sending bombers to the capital here.
Another possible reason is that the U.S. is been pushing Pakistan hard to get more engaged in the badlands. It s not easy — no one’s ever been really able to tame this area. It's been a historic safe haven for all sorts of nasty stuff — now it appears Pakistan is fighting back.
Cheema, who clearly has a lot on his plate, was pleasant enough with us, but absolutely bristled when I repeated the line that some in the U.S. put out about Pakistan not doing enough. Along with his angry rejection he noted the 1,000 troops who have died in clashes with militants in the border area — proof, he said, that Pakistan is making a big sacrifice.
So war and peace in Pakistan. And back to our live shots.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Sunday in Islamabad is a good day to take in a museum — one like you’d never expect in Pakistan. We all know the stereotypes of this country — conservative Muslim women in veils and harsh military rulers. Well, step into Pakistan’s brand new National Art Gallery and you may be surprised of what do you will find. Men and women, er, interacting. Nudes. Funny stuff. And, artworks knocking the military culture in Pakistan and elsewhere.
We had a tour, led by Naeem Pasha, architect and the force behind the place. A museum like this had been in the works for years, but it was stopped and started and stopped by successive governments. It finally got the nudge to completion by the current Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. Pasha says he noticed this unfinished building from his presidential residence and asked what the heck it was. When he found out, he promptly made Pakistan fork over the money to finish it.
And, what an eye opener it is. Inside the airy, white spaces of the place is really striking stuff — an indicator that there is a vibrant culture in Pakistan that you don't get to see in the reporting we do a lot of the time, and even from driving around Islamabad. As Pasha told me, that stereotypical image is not the reality.
The remarkable thing is there have been very few demands to censor the stuff in the museum. When President Musharraf visited, he checked out the video display showing Pakistan soldiers mincing through the air in a lot of different locations and had no criticism. When he approached the room holding the most nudes, he asked his host, “Is this naughty?”
On this day we actually ran into his lovely daughter, Ayla. She is an architect herself and remarked that she didn't even know all this stuff was here.
Now, granted, it wasn't actually packed on the day we visited, but it just opened and word will get around. What a great way to fight back against the ugly terrorism spoiling this country and others. As Pasha put it, "Suicide bombers are just one voice, arts and literature are the voices of many."
Well, there’s election fever in Islamabad ... even if there is virtually only one candidate standing, the outcome is known, and half the voters are sitting it out. Also, even if the result won't be formally ratified until the Supreme Court decides if Musharraf is fit to run!
Still, this was the main event, so we dragged ourselves out of bed after a late night preparing a story for “Special Report” and headed over the Pakistan National Assembly, where the electoral college-style vote was taking place.
The place looked similar to the way our Congress often looks: seats empty, pols confabbing, endless roll calls. We were the only Western TV team up to make it up to the press gallery taking in the action.
After we had our fill, we were outside, where Pakistan media was giving blanket coverage to this non-event event. Within an hour, the results were known. Though unofficial, it was Musharraf ... in a landslide.
A few hours after that, the government publicity machine kicked into action: fireworks, celebrations, rosy pronouncements. Musharraf himself called this an historic time of reconciliation in an impromptu presser. He’s basically trying to create what they like to call the "ground reality" of a victory.
Meanwhile, the other reality in this country rages on — along the border with Afghanistan. More troops were killed in clashes with militants. More border guards were kidnapped. While the political wars go on, the terror war doesn't stop.
If you think U.S. politics is topsy turvy, spend a little time here in Pakistan. There was a lot of news today that kept us running.
First, we got a ruling from the Supreme Court here. They were deciding something pretty basic: whether the vote should happen tomorrow. The decision was “yes ... and no.”
Yes, it could take place and it would basically be an electoral college affair in the national and regional assemblies. But, no, the result wouldn't be official until it decided whether it was OK for Pres Musharraf to seek re-election while hanging on to his Army Chief title. So all of the government bigwigs will wait on tenterhooks for at least another week.
Then there’s that “on again, off again” deal with ex-Prime Minister Bhutto. Right now, it looks like it’s on again. The government here OK’d a deal to grant her amnesty for a slew of corruption charges, in return for her making nice and coming back into a power-sharing arrangement here. More than a few commentators thought the idea of wiping out charges against her and other pols wasn't the most equitable thing in the world.
But the thing that stuck with me most from this day is our stop off at the one-time Red Mosque. This is the mosque in the center of Islamabad that Al Qaeda-linked extremists took over and used as an Islamist base just a bomb’s throw from government power here. It was the scene of a bloody siege and battle this summer that left dead on all sides.
Today, several thousand followers gathered for prayer on the rubble of some of the destroyed buildings. There was open crying amid the prayer. One person came over and gave us a shard of building with red on it. He said it was blood. Another person brought over something that looked like a chunk of a bone. He claimed it was a human bone.
You might recall that Usama bin Laden cited the battle here when he recently declared war on Musharraf. It seems like he might have some like-minded folks still in the Pakistan capital.
I haven't been in Pakistan for six months now, but just a few visits to a few people today tell me how things have changed ... and it all comes down to terror.
Al Qaeda and the Taliban, with their bases along the border here with Afghanistan are turning on Pakistan and President Musharraf in a big way: attacking its troops on the border, and sending suicide bombers right in the heart of the capital. In recent months, two bombs have hit the hotel where I’m staying. It’s gotten people shaken up all across the political spectrum.
We stopped by to say hello to our favorite TV commentator, Hamid Mir. He’s usually very critical of President Musharraf, but today he was more worried about terror. He said it was the biggest threat to Musharraf and the country. In his view, the only solution is something that the president at least says he wants: a government of national reconciliation bringing in all the different parties and segments of the population. Considering what a squabbling bunch of folks they are, it’s a tall order.
I got the same message from the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Tasnim Aslan, but she added a dig at the U.S. She blamed a lot of the trouble on us shifting attention from Afghanistan and allowing Iraq to become a terror breeding ground. You hear that a lot here: the U.S., despite all it’s help, can be a real liability. Whenever UBL or others criticize Musharraf, they always note that he’s in alliance with the U.S., which is not too popular in some parts.
We finished off the day speaking off the record with a "western diplomat." The news we got there wasn't too good either. That person said the thinking is that the situation on the border is getting "worse and worse." One reason is the Pakistan military, still in the business of running this country, is distracted by the political craziness here.
That’s why the U.S. and others, would like to see Musharraf step out of the uniform and let the military get to work. At the same time, the feeling is that the West must stick with Musharraf despite complaints that he’s not tough enough on terror. In the words of the diplomat, "we have no alternative."
It's my second day in Pakistan. I can't think of anything better (not) than sitting in a hot, stuffy room with 500 lawyers, as they cheer and shout and agitate for their cause — getting rid of the Pakistan’s leader, President Musharraf.
Ever since Musharraf tried to get rid of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in March, he’s been on the lawyers' hit list. Mass demonstrations then turned violent and almost led to government upheaval. Now, these fellows are trying to get justice through the system, by putting up one of their own — retired Supreme Court Judge Wajihuddin Ahmed to stand in the presidential election, being decided by the National and local assemblies here on Saturday.
Now, when I say lawyers you probably think of our often buttoned-down type of legal eagles. Well, the Pakistan variety is nothing of the sort. Other than the uniform black tie and white shirt, they are insane and able to get very crazy about their demands for greater democracy.
When Ahmed arrived, he was treated like a pop star. Cheering, shouting and rose petals were scattered all around. After we waited through about a half dozen speeches (in Urdu), up came the candidate. We got the gist of the speech ... Musharraf was undemocratic and his plan to run for re-election was in. Most of his speech was in Urdu, except for a few choice passages in English — including one not so favorable reference to Vice President Dick Cheney.
But don't think he's anti-American. That was on display afterward when we did an interview with the former judge. Actually, the Al Jazeera English network preceded us. At the conclusion of their interview, Ahmed let them have it, saying their scheduling of the report was an example of how the international media gets Pakistan wrong.
I girded for the worst when meet him. But then when he heard I was from FOX there was nothing but praise. "I might not always agree with you say," he proclaimed, "But at least you're very clear and straight with the way you say it!"
These days, when it's pretty tough to roam around a lot of countries, it's nice, at least occasionally, to be given an easy ride. Sorry it’s not more often.
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Greg Palkot serves as a FOX News Channel foreign correspondent based in Paris. Click here to read his full bio.
Greg Palkot currently serves as a London-based senior foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 1998 as a correspondent. Follow him on Twitter@GregPalkot.