Fight or flight

The larger goals of the brazen attack on Karachi airport may have been thwarted, but the message is heard loud and clear

Fight or flight
The attack on Karachi airport both a failure and a success. It was a failure, because all ten terrorists were killed, they took no hostages, and the siege never took place. “Despite a serious lapse in security, the operation itself was a feather in our cap,” says Gen (r) Jamshed Ayaz Khan, a leading defense and strategy analyst, and former president of the Institute of Regional Studies. “Their bad luck was that they had to face the strategic might of the Corps Commander of Karachi and the director general of Rangers.”

It was a success, because once again, the TTP has made it abundantly clear that no security installation in Pakistan is secure, and they can retaliate anywhere, and at any time. The attack is also a major blow to the country’s fledgling economy, as it sends a clear message to foreign airlines operating in and out of Karachi airport.

The lapse in security is all the rage. The sheer number of attackers, the level of coordination and organization, and the fact that they were able to successfully penetrate the largest airport in the country, all point towards terrible interior coordination. The interior ministry, allegedly, even advised the need for better security at airports, unheeded by the Sindh government. “We have terrible governance,” says Gen Khan. “Like it or not, we are in a state of war with a known enemy. Yet we don’t take this threat seriously.”

Gen Khan’s sentiments are validated by three earlier attacks: Pakistan navy airbase PNS Mehran in May 2011, Pakistan Air Force base at Kamra in August 2012, and a very similar raid on Peshawar’s Bacha Khan International Airport in December 2012. The first two directly targeted security installations, and Pakistan’s capacity for aerial warfare. The latter two seem to confirm a new pattern, that the TTP is out to discredit and alienate Pakistan internationally. The message is clear: Pakistan is not a safe location to conduct international airline business. An earlier example, the 2008 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, which resulted in completely eliminating international cricket from Pakistan, is sufficient evidence to support this line of reasoning.

[quote]"You should strike while the iron is hot, and it is the hottest it has ever been"[/quote]

But there is another perspective on security lapses. Intelligence reports in Pakistan come from a wide variety of sources, and offer 25 full ranks of reliability (A1 through E5). Brig (r) Shaukat Qadir, who humbly refers to himself as a retired soldier despite being one of the country’s most astute strategic minds, feels that the clamor surrounding preemptive action and preventative measures is unfounded. “Imagine if the security apparatus responded to every threat, say C3 and above, with preventative measures. The logistical impossibility aside, it would create a permanent state of panic in the country. There would be no need for terror attacks, we would scare ourselves senseless.” The initiative always lies with the attacker, he says. The perpetrator picks the target, the security forces react, and what matters is how quickly they react. That is the status quo. “If you want to change that, you take the fight to them, and you shut them down.”

Earlier this year, the Pakistani government attempted a round of negotiations with the TTP. Despite declaring a month of ceasefire, and forming representative committees on both sides, attacks continued unabated. At the end of April, the talks were all but a pipedream, and in just over a month, the largest airport in the country, in a city of well over 20 million people, came under attack.

“The negotiations were a mechanism to buy time to regroup,” says Gen Khan. “You should strike when the iron is hot, and it is the hottest it has ever been.” He is of the opinion that with the operational window wide open, a concentrated campaign should be orchestrated to wipe out the extremist threat permanently. He echoes the sentiments of Dr Rifaat Hussain, professor at National University of Sciences and Technology and a prominent defense expert, who also believes that the operation should not be announced or publicized, but conducted mercilessly and without warning.

“This attack requires very serious rethinking on our part,” says Dr Hussain. “We also need to identify primary, secondary and tertiary targets, and determine their vulnerabilities, so we can respond to these situations faster, better, and stronger.”

Brig Qadir also believes that the government needs to awaken from its self-imposed slumber, and react methodically. However, he feels that it is incapable of such decisive action. Dr Hussain agrees. “Whether this breaks the back of the proverbial camel remains to be seen, but we have an emergency situation at hand. We need to limit them, corner them, and deny their movement.”

“It is time to strike back,” concludes Gen Khan, “and hit hard.”

The author is a journalist and a development professional, and holds a master’s degree in strategic communications from Ithaca College, NY, USA. He can be reached via email at zeeshan[dot]salahuddin[at] and tweets at @zeesalahuddin