Still fighting the last war

22 Jun 2014

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The script is so predictable it has lost the climax. Militants attack a sensitive installation. While destruction and mayhem are still ongoing, there are clumsy statements apparently aimed at damage control. Statements claiming that strategic assets are safe and the attackers have been pushed back. Once that particular saga is over, condemnations follow. Then there are calls from the highest executives at provincial and/or federal levels directing the concerned departments to investigate the incident and present a “report”.

“You get the impression that a chief minister or the prime minister has to instruct the relevant agencies to investigate a matter and that they would not do what they are supposed to do unless specifically told to. It is kind of demeaning and reflects red-tapism. Is there anything called a system? This is basically mocking yourself and reflects reliance on individuals instead of having a functioning system in place,” argues Dr Jawed Aziz Masudi, a criminologist and lawyer.

So, after engagement in a conflict spanning over a decade and having lost over 30,000 Pakistanis, what have we learnt?

“Probably we haven’t learnt anything,” says SSP Saqib Ismail Memon.


Despite hundreds of attacks on targets ranging from military installations to airports, our security forces have yet to adapt to the threat posed by terrorists. Why?


While Memon’s remarks may come across as too pessimistic, many argue they are a reflection of our miserable state of affairs.

Abbas Haider, a security expert who has spent much time working in Iraq as a private security contractor before returning to Pakistan, argues: “Pakistan is in a state of war. This is an emergency situation and requires a certain response. But we do not see that when we look at the state policies or the public response.”

After nearly 13 years of a non-conventional war that still rages, Pakistan is not even sure if this is “our war” or an American one. Who are the friends and who are the foes?

While in official circles abroad, Pakistan likes to describe itself as America’s “frontline ally” in the global “war on terror”, at home the state appears to promote confused narratives. If most Pakistani politicians, retired military officials, local analysts and the general public are to be believed, almost all terrorism in the country is carried out by “agents” of America, India and Israel. According to this skewed narrative, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is sponsored by the American CIA in a bid to destabilise this nuclear power. Then there are the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban.

“Pakistan has suffered a lot because of this flawed understanding of good and bad Taliban. There is clear nexus between the two. They may have different strategies or priorities, but the core ideology and goals are the same. While our policy has been to benefit some of them, the fact of the matter is that the ‘good’ Taliban have strengthened the position of the ‘bad’ Taliban and we have suffered,” says Hamza Ameer, a journalist who reports on jihadi groups from Pakistan and Afghanistan.


Pakistan is in a state of war. This is an emergency situation and requires a certain response. But we do not see that when we look at the state policies or the public response.


Certain political leaders and analysts in Pakistan, including one who often boasts of his association with some state agencies, have been openly glorifying the Taliban in Afghanistan. This has resulted in a largely positive perception of the Afghan Taliban among the public who have and continue to financially assist the ‘good’ jihadis. Of course, the fact that these ‘good’ jihadis shelter and support the ‘bad’ jihadis in different ways does not form part of the equation. However, officials well-informed about the security establishment believe that change is in the making.

“I think they have already revised their policies. Afghanistan, once a security concern, is not so any more as the Pakhtunistan issue has died down,” said Asad Munir, a retired brigadier and a former chief of ISI Peshawar.

“The state has also realised that the world will not accept and tolerate cross border terrorism now. We also know that this jihadi concept has not yielded the desired results and ultimately the people of Pakistan suffered,” he says.

The missing ideological response is not the only weak link; there is extreme corruption within government departments and even national security is not spared.

Take the example of the 30,000-strong Sindh Police. While it is supposed to be the first line of defence and the hold force, its priorities are different. “The overwhelming majority of people join the police force knowing the element of power and money-making that comes with it. You do not pay hefty bribes just to get in without knowing about the return,” says Kamil Arif, a Karachi-based crime reporter.

“This is not even a secret. There is a lot of money that flows in the police department. Every day begins with policemen on the roads extorting money from the public. From the cop on the street to the officer sitting in his air conditioned office, everybody gets a share so naturally the practice continues. While policemen are busy extracting bribes from powerless citizens over frivolous excuses, terrorists are probably driving past them,” he asserts.

Corruption is so rampant that most senior officers make little effort in even denying the reality. However, they highlight other concerns.

“The police force is hugely demoralised. Even the handful of people who had been very keen to take on the militants are now unwilling to fight. We put our lives in danger and took on the jihadis. Now we have been demoted and deprived of security. This is very discouraging,” said Khurram Waris, a former Superintendent of Police who has now been demoted to the rank of an inspector after the Supreme Court declared shoulder promotions as null and void.

“When the Karachi airport was attacked, the Airport Security Force and police were the first to respond. We managed to take out all the terrorists. Later on the army arrived, took control of the airport and suddenly the impression was that they were the ones who had done all the work. Do you realise how my men feel?” said a senior police officer while requesting anonymity.

“Some security forces feel they are superior to others. This creates a sense of deprivation among others and affects their morale and performance. This also leads to coordination problems between different departments,” he added.

“We haven’t employed technology/gadgetry as done worldwide. Our security apparatus is yet to sync itself with the prevalent security threats,” says SSP Saqib Ismail Memon. One of the most obvious examples of this is the use of a ‘bomb detection scanner’ at a number of Pakistani airports. The scanner does not work. Dawn had reported back in January 2010 that it was modelled on the ADE-651, a device invented by a British conman who is now behind bars for fraud. When Dawn approached the ASF four years ago, senior officials had claimed that they had invented their own version and it was so successful that even the ISI was acquiring it from them. However, the officers simply failed to comprehend that their claims about the method of operation of the device were laughable from a scientific point of view. Dawn had even physically tested the device and it had failed to detect explosive material. However, despite the passage of four years and the Karachi airport attack, the device is still in use.

“This is what happens when you get non-technocrats to fill technical positions. It just sends shivers down the spine when such people or those above them fail to pay heed to valuable advice,” said Abbas Haider.

Haider highlights another security loophole. “Our people easily get carried away by a display of wealth and power. Drive around in a Land Cruiser and note the difference in the attitude of law enforcers. Jihadi groups will increasingly rely on such tactics in the coming days,” he said.

Jihadi groups have already used camouflage in a number of their attacks. The Haqqani network has attacked bases stationing Nato troops while driving there in stolen security vehicles and wearing their uniforms.

Security experts say the prevailing VIP culture in Pakistan is adding to the security woes. “When you are dealing with a terrorist attack, it is simply not the right time to be entertaining politicians and looking after their protocol needs. It is not too difficult for terrorists to camouflage and send in reinforcements while taking advantage of VIP visits,” said a former intelligence official.

Memon agrees and offers some advice. “Technology should be coupled with human deployment. Areas around sensitive installations need to be combed. Entry/exit on sensitive buildings should be protocol free. Mock exercises should be done on professional lines,” he says.

While security experts offer tips on beefing up security, a number of other experts closely monitoring the developments in Pakistan have their share of scepticism. 

“Do we even want to learn? Or is it a case that this present state of affairs and protracted conflict help attain a lucrative financial scenario for some people in the country?” questioned a professor at the University of Karachi while requesting anonymity.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 22nd, 2014