May is turning out to be a month of bloodshed and embarrassment. An early-morning suicide attack at a CID police station in Peshawar two days after the raid on the PNS Mehran navy base in Karachi explains the length and breadth of the asymmetrical war that Pakistan currently faces. On May 13, two motorbike riders blew themselves up among fresh FC recruits outside the security organisation’s fort in Shabqadar, leaving almost a hundred of them dead.
The security apparatus from Karachi to Peshawar and further north is clearly under attack. This is an open guerrilla war against the state of Pakistan, that had already been left stunned and embarrassed by the May 2 American raid in Abbottabad to kill Osama bin Laden.
The raid on PNS Mehran achieved three objectives: it made a Pakistani defence institution look vulnerable, it left the Pakistani security establishment embarrassed, and it conveyed the unambiguous message that the country’s security establishment remains the prime target of terrorist attacks.
And this attack was not the first of its kind. The biggest embarrassment thus far was of course the dramatic raid on the GHQ on October 10, 2009 that had left the nation and the world baffled for almost 24 hours.
Similar Lashkar-e-Taiba fidayeen tactics were used in attacks on the Manawan Police Training School in the outskirts of Lahore in March and October 2009, the ambush on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, and the Parade Lane Mosque in Rawalpindi in December 2009.
Lashkar-e-Taiba fighters had applied the same tactics during their Fidayeen missions in Indian Kashmir: raid, kill and be ready to get killed. Their targets were cantonments and Indian military, paramilitary and intelligence installations. One of the objectives was to cause panic and demoralise the Indian troops who had been operating in a very hostile environment.
Apparently, Pakistan is being paid back in kind for what it had helped mount in the Indian Punjab in the early 1980s and Kashmir in the mid 1980s. As you sow, so shall you reap, says the centuries-old idiom.
The attacks also underscore the outreach of Al Qaeda and its supporters from Waziristan to Karachi. Commando strikes at chosen targets indicate that Al Qaeda or its local “force multipliers” such as Jaish-e-Muhammad, Harkatul Jihad Al Alami, and Jundullah enjoy a strong support base in Karachi. The capture of senior Al Qaeda leader Muhammad Ali Qasim Yakub alias Abu Shoaib al Makki from Karachi on May 17 also alluded to the strong presence of Al Qaeda in the city. Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan has claimed responsibility for the PNS Mehran attack, and has called it revenge for the killing of Osama bin Laden.
There are questions about the veracity of the claim and about whether the TTP is capable of carrying out such an attack. But the Taliban are only the face of the undeclared war on Pakistan by groups that could theoretically stretch from Al Qaeda to Iran to India and even private security contractors. The attackers cannot be equated with religious, anti-West zealots who want to force the NATO forces out of Afghanistan, stop American interference in Pakistan and enforce Sharia in the country.
Irrespective of whether the TTP was behind the attack, there are questions about the preparedness of the security establishment. That a few individuals could engage hundreds of special troops for several hours without getting caught, also reflects badly on our response to such attacks. In almost every case, attackers either fled or were killed, but were never arrested.
Unfortunately, there is compelling evidence that the civilian and military security institutions have mostly acted in isolation rather than in coordination. The civilians have usually been reluctant in acting against people who are considered “the army’s assets”. There are gaping holes in conventional information gathering, especially because of intellectually and technologically ill-equipped field operatives trying to follow and eavesdrop on inconsequential targets that include foreign visitors, instead of hunting down terrorist planning cells and sympathisers and supporters from within the ranks of security forces.
Pakistan’s predicament demands counter-terror plans and counter-intelligence that moves beyond the three Gs (guards, gates and guns) to electronic surveillance and greater coordination between security institutions.
There is a need for a cost-benefit analysis of the strategic framework that we have peddled so far. In Pakistan’s socio-economic situation, the security establishment cannot justify inaction against groups such as the Haqqani Network, Mulla Omar’s Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba. The obsession with “Pakistan’s geo-strategic importance” must give way to rethinking Pakistan’s strategy in line with public interest and a turn-around in the civil-military relations.