Daggers drawn: Not by military means alone

Published June 22, 2014
A man, fleeing a military offensive in South Waziristan, is beaten up by the police after breaking the queue at a distribution point for internally displaced persons in Dera Ismail Khan.—Reuters
A man, fleeing a military offensive in South Waziristan, is beaten up by the police after breaking the queue at a distribution point for internally displaced persons in Dera Ismail Khan.—Reuters

A week after the attack on the Karachi airport, Operation: Zarb-e-Azb has been launched in North Waziristan. But Pakistan’s security doctrine and practices still need to evolve to face the militant threat

The attack on Karachi airport, brazen as it was, was not the first of its kind. Nor will it be the last attack on a high-value vulnerable area with multiple vulnerable Points.

The question is: how did we fare in our response?

There are two levels of response analysis. One deals with preemption, the other with responding to an attack after it is underway. The first is proactive, the second reactive. Preemption presupposes the existence of a highly effective and coordinated intelligence apparatus. The reactive is about fire-fighting. Proactive strategies are about preventing a terrorist group from doing damage. The reactive is about limiting damage.


The state, in its war on terrorism, is putting too much emphasis on military operations and too little or almost no stress on counterterrorism policing and policy


Consider the Karachi attack.

A group of ten terrorists, heavily armed with small arms and light weapons, chose a less-frequented side of the facility. Their plan seemed to be to get to the tarmac and destroy aircraft parked along the gates or in the hangars. They also fired at the fuel dump which was a diversion as well as a successful attempt to start a big fire and cause chaos. Chaos works to the advantage of the attacker. It forms an integral part of his plan and acts as a force-multiplier. Conversely, it makes the defender’s job more difficult by forcing him to also respond to the suboptimal part of the attacker’s plan instead of focusing on the attacker’s optimal objective.

Additionally, as we saw in this case too, the element of surprise was with the attacker. Once the men reached the building, they caught the Airports Security Force (ASF) personnel by surprise. It is for this reason that any area-defence plan stresses layers. But a layered defence itself must have layers on the outside and on the inside. The layered perimeter defence must be set up in a way that can blunt the element of surprise of the attacker before he gets to the VA. If the attacker can be engaged outside the main target and neutralised there, the response, after the attack has started, will be considered very good and efficient.

In this case, as in the previous cases, that did not happen. There are many reasons for that. Here are some: the airport is too close to certain localities, the approaches are not fully covered, there’s too much human traffic, we do not have a security culture and while the ASF is responsible for protecting the airport and its main buildings, it has no presence on the outside.

Further inquiries into the attack could also throw up other questions, like who did the reconnaissance and for how long, what VPs were utilized by the attackers and whether there was any insider-outsider collusion.


Preemption presupposes the existence of a highly effective and coordinated intelligence apparatus. The reactive is about fire-fighting. Proactive strategies are about preventing a terrorist group from doing damage. The reactive is about limiting damage.


That said, the attackers did reach the gate from where they had to enter. They also managed to take out ASF personnel posted at the gate. Round One went to them. Beyond that the going got a little tougher. Inside the VA the ASF had a layered defence and it allowed them to fight back, hold the attackers and prevent them from spreading out. This bought crucial time. The ASF was still fighting when better-trained and equipped reinforcements arrived. By then, however, the attackers had managed to create a spectacle and shown the facility to be vulnerable to any such attack. That part of their mission had been accomplished.

For the responders it was important to get the passengers out safely and confine the terrorists to a single area and take them out as quickly as possible. The attackers wanted the fight to drag on. The defender wanted to finish it quickly. That’s a constant in any such situation.

The attackers were ultimately taken out. They couldn’t damage the aircraft as they must have planned, though some reports suggest partial damage to a few aircraft. A part of the building was gutted by the fire they had started and 29 people, excluding the ten attackers, were left dead. The news had flashed across the world. The state appeared weak and vulnerable.

A large part of the attackers’ mission had been accomplished. As for the response, the plus side is that it could have been worse.

That is the point of concern. The nature of this war will not change, nor will the tactics of the attacker. Is there no way of denying the terrorist his mission?

This is where we have to revisit the idea of pre-emption: stop the enemy before an attack gets underway.

I do not have numbers but it seems, on the basis of nuts-and-bolts information, that we are spending more money on training and weaponising responders than we are on enhancing the capacity of the intelligence apparatus. The irony is that even the money we are spending on intelligence is being wasted because there are too many agencies that are working in silos and, if insiders are to be believed, often at cross purposes.

Put another way, we are not only spending less money on intelligence, we are wasting even the money we are spending. The solution is not just to give more money to the spooks but to also ensure the money is spent efficiently.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government began with the promise to chalk out a National Internal Security Policy (NISP). That policy was finally unveiled end-February this year. It was sent to me about two months before it was made public and I reviewed it – in terms of talking points – and sent it to the Interior Minister. We were supposed to meet and discuss those points further but for some reason that meeting never materialized. I made public the review after the government released some parts of the policy.

The NISP begins by correctly identifying several factors, from the short- to the medium- and long-term. It also stresses the need for coordination. It concedes that the National Counterterrorism Authority needs to play an important role and that there should be a joint intelligence directorate. It details an ambitious agenda for a counter-narrative and the need to streamline seminaries et cetera. But as I pointed out, it has no plan for how to enhance the capacity of the organisations that will be implementing this agenda, including irony of ironies, the capacity of the interior ministry itself, the lead agency in this effort.

Result: all the good intentions contained in the NISP remain just that – intentions. There’s nothing in the appropriations bill for FY2014-15 that indicates allocations for making the NISP dream come true.

This translates into something simple. The state, in its war on terrorism, is putting too much emphasis on military operations and too little to almost no stress on counterterrorism policing. The enemy’s asymmetric advantage lies in urban terrorism. That is precisely where the army cannot be used. And yet, while we continue to add more weaponised units for responding to attacks, there is little effort to improve pre-emption.

If we couldn’t pick up militant chatter on preparations for the Karachi attack and prevent it, our intelligence apparatus needs a drastic overhaul. The only way to make military operations work is to complement them with effective counterterrorism effort in the cities.

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

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