Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Karachi Airport Attack and its Portents

Sushant Sareen, 
Senior Fellow, VIF

The terrorist strike on the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi was neither the first nor the worst attack on such a high profile target in Pakistan. Just as similar attacks in the past – the GHQ and the Parade Lane mosque in Rawalpindi, the Naval War College, FIA building and ISI HQs in Lahore, the Mehran Airbase in Karachi and the Minhas Airbase in Kamra, the DI Khan and Bannu jailbreaks – did not quite serve as a wake-up call for Pakistan, there is no reason that the Karachi airport attack will. After the usual blame-game and finger pointing, followed by some bombastic declarations of how the country will not surrender before the terrorists, followed by a series of high level meetings on how to meet the terrorist challenge, it will be back to business as usual, until the next attack when the whole familiar cycle will repeat itself. And yet, like in the case of every major terror strike, there is always a method behind the madness that has been unleashed by the Taliban on Pakistan.

Given their savage and barbaric behaviour, there is generally a tendency among analysts and commentators to underestimate the sophistication and carefully calculated and calibrated nature of the Taliban strategy. This is a mistake that should be avoided. While it is true that the bestiality of the Taliban (and the rest of Islamist cohorts) has no modern parallel, they must be given credit for choosing their targets and planning their attacks with great care and calculation to cause maximum impact. To explain away an attack either as a sign of their growing desperation (a familiar tack used by governments to put a shine on their failure to pre-empt or prevent an attack) or as a senseless revenge attack or even as an attack whose only purpose was to create a splash, is nothing but self-deception.
Even worse are the bizarre conspiracy theories that are conjured up to somehow lessen the import of the attack and dilute the horror perpetrated by the actual culprits against whom neither the Pakistani people nor their political and security establishment are ready to take an unequivocal stand. Among the most popular of these conspiracy theories is the involvement of the Indian or Afghan intelligence in directing the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attacks on Pakistan. According to the latest conspiracy theory (i.e. after the Karachi attack), the Indians were retaliating against the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s attack on its consulate in Herat and the Afghan presidential candidate, Dr Abdullah Abdullah was doing the same against the suicide bombing aimed at assassinating him. The evidence: recovery of some Indian made medicines, conveniently glossing over the fact that these carried the label of the Karachi based importer; recovery of Indian origin ‘weapons’, and even though no one ever specified what these weapons were, everyone kept parroting the line. Quite frankly, if indeed India was behind this and other attacks and was using the TTP against Pakistan, it would be the greatest intelligence coup of the millennium and would be every Indian spook’s dream come true. Only it isn’t. Come to think of it, if India had such covert capabilities, why has it not used them to take out international terrorist like Dawood Ibrahim, Hafiz Saeed and some Khalistani terrorists who continue to strut around inside Pakistan?

Clearly, if the Pakistanis were really serious about fighting terrorism, then instead of wasting their time on silly theories that hold no water, they would worry about dreadful implication of the attack on Karachi and the ground (or is it a trap?) that the Taliban are preparing for taking on the Pakistani state. In other words, rather than looking for the apparition of India behind the attack, they should be worried about the possibility that just as 9/11 was a trap that the Al Qaeda laid out for getting USA enmeshed in the Afghan quagmire, the Karachi attack could be aimed at embroiling Pakistan in something similar. But first, a bit about the timing and circumstances of the attack and why it presages something far more serious about the fight that Pakistan faces if it wants to get rid of terrorism.

Unless it is somebody’s case that this attack was planned and executed independently of the political and military situation facing the Taliban, the question of when the attack was planned becomes critical to understand its significance. Normally such assaults take weeks of recce and meticulous planning to get all the nuts and bolts in place. It is of course possible that the Taliban have made blueprints of plans to attack a multitude of targets around Pakistan and these are put into action at a time and place of the terrorists’ choosing and in accordance with their larger strategic game plan. The problem with such set plans is that they tend to become somewhat dated if not executed within a certain timeframe. At the very least, their damage potential reduces in direct proportion to the time they remain on the shelf because of changes in the security and other procedures in the target area which could hamper the original plan. Even so, if such plans exist, it means that there is probably no high value target in Pakistan that is not in the cross-hairs of the terrorists.

Alternatively, it is entirely possible that the Karachi attack was mounted with only rudimentary planning and the terrorists went in ‘blind’. Although published accounts of the attack belie this possibility, even if this was the case, the fact that the terrorists were willing to attack, and in the process create a massive psychological impact, is scary in terms of what it implies for the future. What is more, the fact that the Taliban were able to get together all the elements that go into the launching of such an attack in such a quick time speaks volumes about their network and strike ability.

Clearly then, the first objective that the TTP has achieved is that it has once again proved its firepower and reach. This was important given that many analysts, within the government and without, were gloating about the split in the TTP ranks after the breaking away of the Mehsud faction from the main Fazlullah-led TTP. There appeared to be a consensus among most of these analysts that this split would deal a body blow to the TTP and deprive it of its most lethal component and significantly impair its ability to strike outside of FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Karachi attack rebuffs all these analyses.

Another objective of the attack could be to exploit the divisions between the civilian government and the military on the strategy to combat terrorism. While the former is keen on continuing to pursue the dialogue track – it points to the sharp fall in terror attacks during the month or so of ceasefire between the Taliban and the Pakistani state – the military is itching to (or is at least making a show of it) launch an operation against the Taliban. Although it is not quite clear what sort of an operation the military has in mind – whether it will strike only from the safe distance of the skies and not send in foot soldiers or it will carry out steam-roller military operations – the civilians are reportedly reluctant to give a free hand to the military. The Karachi attack will only deepen this civil-military divide and add to the existing confusion and lack of national consensus on how to combat the menace of terrorism. Under these circumstances, even if the civilians give a go-ahead to the military to launch an operation, questions will continue to be raised and doubts will continue to be expressed on whether or not this was the right path to take, something that works well for the Taliban.

Finally, the Karachi attack could be part of a strategy to provoke a major military operation that would not only lead to the Taliban of all hues closing ranks but also enmeshing the Pakistan army in a debilitating war of attrition. Even if the closing of ranks does not happen, the TTP (and for that matter so should the Pakistani state) would be calculating that if the breakaway faction of Mehsud Taliban, which is as fanatical and committed to radical Islam as the main TTP faction, sides with the Pakistani state it will not be for free. It will demand a price that the Pakistani state will be loath to pay. In addition, the ham-handed approach that the Pakistan army adopts in clearing out areas only works to the advantage of the Taliban who get new recruits with enough cause to fight the Pakistani state. The resulting destabilisation of the region will be exploited by them to extend their area of influence, both inside Pakistan and Afghanistan. The big dilemma for the Pakistani authorities is that they are damned if they move in, and they are damned if they don’t. By not launching an operation, they will buy some more months of peace but it will make any subsequent operation even more difficult, if not impossible; But launching an operation may precipitate the crisis and ensnare the Pakistani security forces in a bloody battle of attrition eventually breaking its will and coherence.

Whatever the real objective/s of the attack, and regardless of whether or not it was successful in achieving all it aimed for or how much actual physical damage it caused, it is a no-brainer that the Taliban have for now stuck yet another body blow to the state of Pakistan, not just psychologically (their strike reach and ability) and perceptually (image as an unsafe investment and business centre, something the Taliban spokesman also pointed out while taking responsibility for the attack), but also financially (in terms of actual and notional loss of business opportunities), and in terms of prestige (bumbling government response).

Published Date: 17th June 2014, Image source: http://cache.pakistantoday.com.pk

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