Covering Karachi

If a war is in order, we need to rethink our approach

Covering Karachi
“ASF commandos are fighting the militants. Let’s go and talk to them,” said a visibly hysteric reporter, as the camera panned to show the faces and location of the security personnel fighting attackers who had targeted their training academy a day after the attack on Karachi Airport.

The moment the news of the second attack on Airport Security Force academy broke, a brigade of media men armed with cameras, mikes and satellite vans rushed to the site.

On June 8, when terrorists attacked Karachi Airport, they had been running unverified and incorrect reports in a race to break the news.

A news channel broke the story of a plane being hijacked, reminding people of the horrors of 9/11. Another channel beat its rival by reporting two aircraft were hijacked. After a while, both retracted their stories.

At the ASF academy, over-excited reporters even tried to communicate with the commandos engaged in a gunbattle. The soldiers tried to tell them away, but in vain. The news channels compromised the position of security personnel, who had taken positions outside the academy facing Pehelwan Goth, a slum crammed with mud and brick houses.

Camera teams airing live footage accompanied the commandos to a nearby drain where the terrorists had supposedly taken refuge. If by any chance the orchestrators of the attacks were watching the live transmission, they would have no problem guiding the attackers.

Some TV reporters found relatives of martyred ASF officials and asked bizarre questions. In one report, relatives of a martyred official were shown sitting on the floor, weeping. The reporter made a brief introduction and began to ask the crying widow some blunt questions. “So, sister, tell us how many children do you have?” He even asked a child how he felt after losing his father. It wouldn’t be unexpected if one of them slapped him.

Soon, Sindh Information Minister Sharjeel Memon accused the media of misreporting. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan accused a few news channels of creating chaos.

Some channels showed live coverage of the ASF academy gunfight, while claiming later than they were prerecorded.

After the success of the operation to secure Karachi Airport, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chief of Army Staff Gen Raheel Sharif congratulated the forces and the nation. Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah spent whole night at the airport to oversee the operation.

None of them had the moral courage to admit that the Karachi attack was a blatant intelligence failure. Issuing general threat advisories is a routine matter, but according to police and ASF sources, there was no specific intelligence report about the airport attack.

According to National Internal Security Policy (NISP) as many as 33 intelligence agencies are operating in Pakistan. One would be justified to question their efficacy. Experts say the only way to stop a suicide bomber is to nab him before he wears the vest. Once he straps the explosives to his body, it becomes almost impossible to stop him without causing damage.

According to the ministry of interior, the strength of Sindh police is approximately 27,000. Besides, there are a Rangers and intelligence agencies trying to maintain the law and order in Karachi.

Col Khalid Munir, a former intelligence officer, claimed there were more Taliban militants in Karachi than in entire North or South Waziristan. The port city has become a safe haven given its complex demography, huge size and escape routes.

Until 1999, the agencies were chasing armed groups belonging to a particular political party. After Gen Musharraf took over and needed support of that political party, the chase stopped. Soon after 9/11 the entire focus was shifted to arresting jihadis and Al Qaeda militants.

An operation in Karachi without credible intelligence can never succeed. This is not North Waziristan or South Waziristan. The militants intermingle with the locals and pose to live like ordinary people.

Pakistan People’s Party, the largest opposition party in the National Assembly, raised some serious question on the federal government’s response. Opposition leader Khurshid Shah claimed the prime minister was overseeing the operation against the airport attackers instead of the interior minister.

He hinted that a change of portfolios in the Nawaz Sharif cabinet might be in order. It is being speculated the interior minister may be given the portfolio of defense minister.

Meanwhile, the federal government has called off the peace dialogue and is bracing to launch decisive operation against the TTP. But if a war is impending, we need to change our approach towards such security lapses.

Shahzad Raza is an Islamabad-based journalist

Twitter: @shahzadrez