The ferocious terrorist attack on the Karachi international airport is a grim reminder of a state under siege and with little hope of it being salvaged. The security forces cleared the airport after a fierce gun battle lasting several hours that left over 30 people killed and some aircraft damaged.
The country was still reeling in the aftermath of the 15th June assault on Karachi airport. Just as nerves were beginning to stop jangling, as bodies were being lowered into the ground and the costs started being counted, came a second, though less deadly, attack on the Airport Security Force’s Camp no. 2, adjacent to the same airport.
The attackers in the second incident managed to flee, unlike the ones in the earlier attack who were killed. This, if the state is to be believed, constitutes a ‘great victory’ – these particular militants’ ability to wreak further havoc has been cut short. The government’s attempt to put a positive spin on the incident, notwithstanding, nothing could be further from the truth.
Massive failure of state
In fact, what happened at the airport on Sunday night constituted a massive failure of the state, an indictment of the country’s security strategy.
Firstly, and most obviously, there is little to celebrate in eliminating men who had never expected to walk away alive. Secondly, more damningly, there had been forewarnings.
Similar assaults on similarly sensitive installations have taken place before; from the siege of the GHQ 9Government Head Quarters, in Rawalpindi, in 2009, to the attack on the Pakistan National Security Mehran base in Karachi, in 2012, to the Pakistan Air Force Minhas airbase at Kamra, a year later. In any other country facing an increase of terrorism, where determined efforts to counter the situation are made, these incidents would have been more than enough to prompt a full rethink of the national security strategy in the face of the internal and escalating nature of the threat. Given the scale of the militants’ assault on Pakistan’s state and society over the past decade, its security and intelligence personnel should have been among the world’s best-trained counter-insurgents – well prepared and highly efficient. Instead, once again, we find the security and intelligence machinery helpless in the face of an implacable enemy, demonstrating a preposterous level of ineptitude, just as we saw in the context of a range of assaults such as the D.I. Khan jailbreak last year.
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. They are also making a point to the government and society that they can strike anywhere, anytime.
The terrorists seem to have achieved these 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 got on to the runway. It was apparent that the assailants had all the relevant information about the airfield – which is 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. But TV footage showed a thick curtain of smoke covering the runway and fire engulfing areas around the aircraft, indicating how close they were to hijacking a plane.
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-Qa’ida 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 organisational network in the city itself. Such sophisticated terrorist actions also required comprehensive planning, finances and logistical support.
Sophisticated terrorist network
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 law-enforcement in the city lends a favourable 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 legitimised militant violence, giving the terrorist groups even greater space.
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 a backlash in the 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 (Pakistan Taliban) and al-Qa’ida.
Surely it suits these militant groups to buy time, sparing Punjab for the time being? But it will not be very long before 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 destabilised 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.
Throughout these attacks, the government has been running around like a headless chicken. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan was briefing the National Assembly on how the first attack was tackled when he had to be interrupted by an opposition member informing him that another attack was in progress!
There can be no greater instance of helplessness in the face of terror than seeing the official in charge of internal security in this state of cluelessness.
The most tragic aspect of this has been the shocking revelation that seven employees of a cargo company died undetected in a cold-storage facility. This despite the fact that we were assured that the airport had been swept thoroughly and no one remained.
The chain of events that has unfolded also gives us an insight into why we have a government that has been been failing against those out to kill and maim us. The twin attacks are obvious intelligence failures. There are no less than twenty six organisations working on domestic security “securing our people”. Of these, the police forces in the federal units alone are allotted a budget of Rs155 billion. The other forces, in all probability, receive more – much more.
Yet these forces, with some 600,000 personnel, are unable to defend Pakistanis. Most of these bodies operate in the shadows and without any accountability. They may claim that secrecy is vital to their work but it is becoming increasingly likely that this is an excuse for their continuous failures.
The blame game now being played raises the question whether there is even any clear understanding of who is doing what. Is any standard operating procedure in place to cope with a situation such as the one that arose last Monday?
Perhaps the problem is that there are too many different agencies replicating work and fighting turf wars rather than coming together for the safety of the mass of the population. The government was supposed to streamline intelligence work by finally making the National Counter Terrorism Authority functional, but this remains in the long queue of unfulfilled promises.
Some things are so obvious that it is hard to understand why they were neglected. Laypersons on social media have been making observations for a long time about the very poor security on at least one side of the airport, which is visible as planes come in to land. Why was this not noticed by those responsible for our security?
The inquiries and investigations that take place now come after the event. We have all seen this process before. Often such inquiries come to naught. We hope this will not be the case this time round, given the extent of the threat from militancy and the open declaration of war by the TTP.
Government and state officials prefer to make excuses for incompetence, giving absurd statements saying the firing on the ASF camp was no big deal since Karachi sees such violence all the time and that the media is mistaken in reporting it as an attack on the airport when the camp was two kilometres away.
The big success of the TTP has been in exposing the weakness of the national institutions. The executive can’t make decisions, and is scared. The lower judiciary makes bad decisions all the time, and is also scared. The military makes decisions without any accountability, and sometimes wastes the fearlessness, bravery and heroism of soldiers.
The bureaucracy is mostly incompetent and savagely self-centred and self- serving. The political parties are one-man shows, more interested in bequeathing power to those men’s children than to developing solutions to national and local problems.
Terrorising the working masses
Every man, woman and child in Pakistan is a public policy expert because it does not take a genius to figure out how bad our state is at doing its job. The TTP’s terrorism and the supporting narratives within and beyond the religious extremism that the TTP feeds on, have done more to expose the state than any country or group previously had.
The TTP and its backers and funders are interested in terrorising, fragmenting, frightening, and most of all, isolating and starving the working masses of Pakistan. They are engaged in a brutal and unrelenting long-term campaign to destroy Pakistan.
The Pakistani ruling class has failed to protect the working masses and poor in the country. The ruling class is interested only in protecting itself. In the last decade the corrupt elite has failed to make a national security policy to counter the Taliban offensive.
It has failed to defeat the Taliban ideology in the country and to tame the rising religious extremist ideas which are flourishing without any check. The working masses and poor are continuing to suffer further from this onslaught.
The working class and radical sections of the middle class need to act now. It is the immediate task of the trade union and left movement of the country to start a political movement to counter this extremist ideology of destruction.
There is no future for the working class and poor under capitalism and religious extremism. The working masses urgently need their own independent political voice to defend their interests.
Khalid Bhatti, Socialist Movement Pakistan (CWI), Lahore