Airports, like hospitals, are some of the busiest locations in crowded cities. Both are places that carry mixed emotions and people, usually at all hours of the day. They have to be service-oriented; they are expected to deliver. The city, like a living organism, functions on the dependability of these structures (socially and economically). That is why airports have often been ideal targets for terrorism tactics across the world (Madrid-Barajas Airport 2006; Domodedovo Airport, Moscow, 2011; Bacha Khan Airport, Peshawar 2012).
The attack on the Jinnah International Airport, Karachi claimed by the TTP, on Sunday night was planned, perhaps months ahead, keeping the above in mind. The idea was to bring one of the most strategically chosen targets to its knees; it was to show that Karachi’s busiest location was capable of being penetrated and paused. It was theatrical – as terrorist attacks often are. It didn’t demand media attention; it seized it forcefully, in Pakistan and abroad. Like the Mumbai 26/11 attacks, they were a demonstration of strategic reconnaissance and coordination. It was a reminder to the international community about the weaknesses of the Pakistani state and intelligence. It was a gross depiction of the militant’s strength in Pakistan’s largest and most populated urban centre.
The objective of the attack was not to come out of it alive; the terrorists knew they would be outnumbered by security forces within minutes. The response of the security forces was swift and is commendable; the lives lost by ASF officers, police, Rangers, PIA engineers and CAA employees must not be forgotten. But the ability of the terrorists to hold siege, conduct a fidayeen-style attack, coupled with their guerrilla tactics, was symbolic and unfortunately it has overshadowed the efforts of our security forces.
And just in case the messages had not been received, a group of armed terrorists fired at the ASF Academy barely two days after the Jinnah Airport attack. According to initial reports, TTP’s Omar Khorasani has claimed responsibility for this attack. Whoever, till this point, had denied the presence of the TTP in Karachi, should be reconsidering his or her opinion now. Despite the ceasefire between the Pakistani government and the Taliban since March this year, the city has witnessed bouts of terroristic violence including a suicide attack on police officer Shafiq Tanoli, as well as an IED blast in Delhi colony (although reports have claimed LeJ was involved in this attack on a bus carrying Shia mosque-goers) in April.
Outside Karachi, Islamabad witnessed an attack on its courthouse on 3rd of March, which was apparently claimed by Ahrar-ul-Hind, which happens to be a splinter faction of the TTP. Interestingly, the same TTP splinter group claimed responsibility for the attacks in Peshawar and Quetta a few days later (on March 14). Most recently, a Taliban suicide bomber targeted a military checkpoint in Boya, North Waziristan. According to the TTP, the attacks in North Waziristan and Karachi airport were in response to military operations in the North being conducted by the Pakistani army.
If TTP-affiliated attacks are in fact retaliatory, then a concerning trend seems to emerge: Pakistan’s military operations against terrorists do not bring the country and its people to a standstill overall; the TTP do. The latter has maintained its capabilities of terrorizing an entire populace, and Pakistan needs not another reason to engage them with force.
It is understood now, that the Karachi operation, led by the police and Rangers, has gone quiet. It did not have the ability of dismantling or dislocating TTP militants from Karachi. Unfortunately, our state forces are now dealing with the problem of urban warfare (conflicts are moving from villages and mountains to cities) and the phenomenon of the urban jihad.
The weaknesses of the institutions of our state seem particularly grave ahead of the upcoming US-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. The future of Pakistan rests on how the security and stability of Afghanistan is maintained. Any conflict that breaks down, as is looking increasingly likely, across Pakistan’s borders, will have all the likelihood of trickling down into our territories that may no longer restrict themselves to the tribal areas, but intensify further within the cities.
These are new, unconventional means of war today and Pakistan must devise tactics and response measures accordingly. We need to strengthen our state security apparatus including police and rangers, and perhaps stop demoralizing them, as they are the first responders. We can no longer rely upon peace talks and negotiations.
What audacity did the Pakistani Taliban have to unilaterally decide the end the ceasefire because their demands had not been met? Was that public statement not our state’s prerogative? It is time we realize the need to stop negotiating with those who have no desire to lay down arms or budge from their unreasonable demands. There is a further need to carefully analyze whether a controlled ceasefire with other groups may be capable of breach later in the day. More importantly, the state must also devise a plan of action against sectarian organizations (including the LeJ, and the recently notorious Jaish-ul-Islam that was behind the Taftan attack in Balochistan earlier this month) and foresee the threat that arises from appeasing selected groups. If Pakistan wants to wage an all-out war against terrorists in Pakistan, the time is now.
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