THROUGH a high-profile attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi a few days ago, the terror network in Pakistan wanted to achieve three major objectives. First, it wanted to dispel the impression that its capacity to strike had weakened due to internecine fighting and the split in the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which saw the Sajna group parting ways with the mainstream.
Second, it wanted to demonstrate that it could break the nerve line of Pakistan’s economy by paralysing Karachi, the financial hub, for five hours. Third, it wanted to make headlines by orchestrating a high-profile attack, sending a signal to investors around the globe that Pakistan was not a safe destination for investment.
The terror network struck again the day after the attack at an Airport Security Force facility while the political and security establishments of Pakistan competed with one another to eulogise the valour of Pakistan’s security forces. Through the second attack, it may have wanted to drive home the point that it was very much there and that the earlier attack was not simply an act of desperation.
There are several reasons why the terror network was able to storm the airport and achieve what it wanted to but a few developments seem to be of immense importance in order to understand how we got to this point.
Many factors led to the airport attack.
In the absence of a coordinated and comprehensive counterterrorism policy and an institutional mechanism to implement the policy, an all-party conference was called by the newly elected prime minister in September 2013. The APC authorised the government to “initiate a dialogue with all stakeholders forthwith”. The interior minister continued to delay a comprehensive internal security policy. In the meantime, internal security affairs were overseen by the Cabinet Committee on National Security (CCNS), with the effective exclusion of parliament from all concerned affairs.
While the announcement of a comprehensive policy continued to be delayed, the government was taken up with issues related to mainstream Punjab. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh experienced consistent militant attacks during this time. Extortion, kidnapping for ransom and targeted killing increased in these provinces. Several dozen political workers, traders, peace activists and NGO personnel have been targeted in KP alone over the past one and a half years. Billions were collected through extortion in Peshawar alone.
While the formation of the TTP’s and the government’s negotiating committees was being debated, the National Assembly and Senate were effectively sidelined, isolating the government and making it vulnerable to the machinations of elements in the political and security establishments. These elements might have convinced the CCNS to pit one militant group against the other to ‘weaken’ them, an oft-repeated policy that was doomed to backfire.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and Jamaat-i-Islami coalition government in KP adopted not only a pliant attitude towards the militant network renamed the ‘stakeholders’ by the APC but also took political steps to give the militants as much legitimacy as possible. While the network kept consolidating its positions in and around Peshawar and in Karachi and other parts of Pakistan, ministers’ speeches in the KP Assembly seemed to be advocating the TTP’s case.
The PTI not only offered an ‘office’ to the TTP in Peshawar but also met their long-standing demand of putting pressure on the US to halt drone strikes. This gave the militant network an open field to recruit, raise funds and strengthen its organisational structure after the death of their leader Hakeemullah Mehsud.
It also earned space for itself in public debate and in the media, including social media, to plead its case and win back public support that was dwindling. During this time, the Difa-i-Pakistan Council — an alliance of Salafi jihadists, Panjpiris, Haqqanis and old spymasters — became more than active.
The DPC held mammoth rallies and public meetings across Pakistan demanding a ‘free zone’ for the militant network, and made it its mission to respond to all questions regarding the existential threat to Pakistan.
When finally in February last, an internal security policy was announced, analysts and democratic political parties welcomed it, even if it was half-baked. Though parliament was still unaware as to what was happening the announcement was a step in the right direction. The policy promised to revive the National Counter-Terrorism Authority that would be autonomous and coordinate all political, intelligence, security and strategic measures against terrorism. But Nacta is still in cold storage.
The political and security establishment must move towards regional cooperation, debunk the militant discourse, and implement a consistent, coordinated, compact and transparent policy to counter the existential threat to Pakistan.
The writer is a political analyst based in Peshawar.
Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2014