By Zahid Hussain
“The Karachi airport attack once again exposed the vulnerability of our security system. The sense of urgency in Islamabad was not commensurate with the scale of the crisis”, says the author.
The ferocious terrorist attack on the Karachi international airport is a grim reminder of a state under siege with little hope of it being salvaged. The security forces cleared the airport after a fierce gun battle stretching to several hours that left over 20 people killed and some aircraft damaged. Notwithstanding the claim of success in containing the damage, the incident once again exposed the vulnerability of our security system in dealing with such organized and daring terrorist assaults.
The most worrisome aspect was the complete lack of leadership at the national level as the country faced one of its most serious security challenges. The sense of urgency in Islamabad was not commensurate with the scale of the crisis at the country’s premier airport that was under attack with thousands of passengers caught in the crossfire.
The federal interior minister surfaced the next morning saying that an enquiry has been ordered. He did not satisfy queries when he arrived in Karachi 22 hours later. One was also disappointed that the prime minister, apart from issuing the routine condemnation, in the manner of his predecessors, did not make a TV appearance instilling some confidence in the people during or after the crisis.
Taking on the TTP
This has led to observations in some circles that the prime minister’s concern for attacks outside his home province of Punjab is far less than expected. Even though all parties had agreed to give peace a chance, the present government’s inaction borders on a capitulation that has further strengthened the militants. There is still no show of any resolve to take on the TTP, which has claimed responsibility for Sunday night’s attack. There was a lot of similarity between the attack on Karachi airport and the earlier assaults on the Mehran and Kamra airbases. All were carried out by highly trained suicide squads armed with sophisticated weapons and aimed at inflicting maximum damage.
One more objective of selecting these high-profile targets was to get maximum international publicity. The terrorists seem to have achieved both goals. The attack on the country’s biggest international airport and commercial gateway carried much greater long-term consequences for the country’s image and economy. The incident may force international airlines to review their operations in Pakistan. One should also forget about any foreign direct investment coming into the country at least for some time.
It is shocking the way terrorists carrying huge bags of firearms and explosives breached the supposedly high-security zone and entered the runway. It was apparent that the assailants had all the relevant information about the airfield – not possible without internal help. A Taliban spokesman claimed one of their aims was to hijack a passenger aircraft.
The attempt may have been foiled by the security forces, but the attackers could have been close to achieving their goal. The government and the security agencies are downplaying the damage as TV footage of a thick curtain of smoke covering the runway and fire engulfing areas around the aircraft shows.
More importantly, the attack gives some insight into the militant nexus operating in Karachi. The country’s main financial centre has long been a haven for the Taliban, sectarian militants, jihad financiers and Al-Qaida sleeper cells. This lethal brew seems to have been responsible for high-profile attacks such as the one on Karachi airport and earlier, the Mehran base. Security officials suspect that most of the attackers were Uzbeks or from the tribal areas.
It is quite plausible given that a large number of foreign fighters have taken sanctuary in North Waziristan. But these outsiders could not have carried out such coordinated and professionally planned assaults without a powerful organizational network in the city itself. Such sophisticated terrorist actions also required comprehensive planning, finances and logistical support. The presence of this kind of sophisticated terrorist network makes the city much more vulnerable, particularly with no counter-terrorism strategy in place.
The virtual collapse of the administrative system and of lawenforcement in the city lends a favorable environment for the terrorist networks to operate with such impunity. What happened in Karachi cannot be seen in isolation. The growing stridency of the militants is a direct result of the government’s policy of appeasement in the name of peace negotiations. This approach has virtually legitimized militant violence giving the terrorist outfits even greater space.
Fear of backlash in Punjab
Despite the fact that hundreds of soldiers have been killed in militant attacks, the government has not given the go-ahead to the military to eliminate militant sanctuaries in North Waziristan. One major reason for avoiding an operation is seen as the fear of backlash in Punjab.
As a result, the threat to national security from the rising militancy has become much more serious. The notion of Punjab’s safety first and foremost carries serious consequences for the country’s unity and stability. Ironically this inaction makes Punjab much more insecure in the long term. The province is the biggest incubator of sectarian extremists and jihadists. Many of the Punjabi militant groups have made North Waziristan their operational base and are working closely with the TTP and Al-Qaida. Surely, it suits these militant groups to buy time sparing Punjab for the time being. But it is not going to be very long when they will turn their attention to their home province. They have already shown their prowess by launching some spectacular attacks in Lahore and Rawalpindi not long ago.
Also, the rise in sectarian violence has further destabilized the country. Hours before the Karachi airport attack the sectarian extremists killed over 20 Shia pilgrims in Taftan on the border with Iran. There is a clear link between the sectarian extremist group and militant outfits attacking the security forces. The latest spate of violence provides an opportunity to the government to unify the country for a decisive war against terrorism. But is anyone listening?