Scores of Shia pilgrims, a majority of them ethnic Pashtuns, were massacred in Taftan, Balochistan by jihadist suicide bombers over the weekend, just as their ideological cohorts unleashed death and mayhem at Karachi airport. This is not an escalation in the war unleashed by the jihadists as some analysts have claimed but an unfortunate norm for Pakistan now. The Shia genocide by way of both pogroms and systematic targeted killing of the eminent male members of the beleaguered community is an ongoing phenomenon. Hundreds of Shias have been martyred at the hands of the jihadists en route via Taftan to their holy places in Iran and Iraq or on the way back. Similarly, the so-called spectacular attacks on key civilian and military installations have become a permanent feature of the Pakistani geopolitical landscape. Regrettably, the state’s, especially the security establishment’s, muddled priorities seem equally set in stone.
The Karachi airport attack is a virtual replay of the previous Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) assaults on the Minhas airbase in Kamra (August 2012), Mehran naval base in Karachi (May 2011) and the Peshawar airport (December 2012). The operational manoeuvres and the targets of the terrorists varied in each attack but such brazen assaults remain the most effective tactic in the jihadist playbook alongside targeting civilians in massive suicide bombings. The TTP strategy remains to not just show that it is alive and kicking but is able to project power all over Pakistan while making the state look impotent under the full media glare. The reaction time and response efficacy of the airport security and armed forces personnel and, above all, their sacrifices during the Karachi airport attack were commendable. The terrorists could have certainly inflicted much bigger loss of life and property had law enforcement agencies not confronted them. Still, the terrorists did what they had set out to do: instil fear in the public while energising their own base. The TTP quickly claimed responsibility for the deadly attack. There may have been on-site security lapses too but the ultimate responsibility for the massive failure in preventing the attack, and the leverage the TTP gained through it, rests with the intelligence agencies.
The causes of such monumental intelligence fiascos are myriad. While capacity issues may be at play, it is the will and priorities of the outfits responsible for the job that raises the most serious questions. Zeroing in on the choicest targets, ranging from ostensibly strategic assets at Kamra to surveillance planes at Mehran base to the fighter jets at Peshawar base to commercial airliners in Karachi now, suggests collusion from within these facilities. That terrorist cells have been operational within the armed forces has been conceded in his book by former army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, who narrowly escaped their attacks twice. No surprises there. But has the security establishment changed one bit even after its ex-commander and then General Headquarters came under terrorist attacks? Some analysts, including some liberal ones too, have been very optimistic for some time now that there is a sea-change in how the establishment is handling the terrorism issue. Maybe so, but I will believe it when I see it. The events of the past few weeks, if not the past decade, in Pakistan and in Afghanistan suggest that there has been no course correction whatsoever. In the wake of the attack on the prominent journalist Hamid Mir, for which he and his family blamed the country’s premier intelligence agency, an assortment of jihadist, quasi-jihadist and outright terrorist outfits took to the streets and the airwaves ‘to protect the honour of the national institutions’. These very same characters are ones that harboured the al Qaeda ringleaders like Abu Zubaidah and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and also Benazir Bhutto’s assassins From their ranks comes the rabid anti-Shia terror mastermind Malik Ishaq whose underlings have wreaked havoc in Taftan. Support from such unsavoury individuals and groups was sought, or at least accepted, like in past decades without an iota of concern for their jihadist activities and domestic terrorism. The same array of jihadists involved in slaughtering the Shia pilgrims is also considered responsible for the abduction, torture and burials in mass graves of Baloch nationalists and separatists. One wonders how exactly do the liberal analysts singing paeans of the paradigm shift in the security establishment’s geostrategic thinking explain this ongoing domestic consorting.
There does not seem to be much change in jihadist practice vis-à-vis Afghanistan even if one buys the theory that policy has changed. The attack on the Indian consulate in Herat, the massive incursion into Nuristan and the attack on the Afghan presidential candidate Dr Abdullah Abdullah are all being linked to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), whose front organisation the Jamatud Dawa was cheerleading the recent hullaballoo in support of the ‘sensitive agencies’. Contrary to what some want the world to believe, the LeT has expanded, not wrapped up, its terrorist activities in Afghanistan after 9/11, especially in that country’s northeast. The LeT is believed to have carried out several joint attacks with the Haqqani terrorist network inside Afghanistan and it is unlikely that its recent forays were without the knowledge, blessings and support of the Pakistan-based Haqqanis. Pakistan, of course, flatly denies any involvement in these attacks while the LeT leadership is living large in the Pakistani heartland. Interestingly, the chatter about a ‘decisive action’ ostensibly in the North Waziristan Agency (NWA), including against the Haqqanis, is again picking up momentum. The army’s line for some time has been that they are itching to take the fight to the terrorists. The fact that former army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani had steadfastly refused to act in NWA when the world was willing to help Pakistan in that endeavour, is not lost on anyone, but better late than never. Perhaps Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should take the military up on its word. Paradigm shifts, however, do not happen when a state runs with the hare and hunts with the hounds. It would take much more than the measly resolve displayed by the country’s top civilian and military leadership and the short, prevaricating statement coming out of their latest meeting to take the terrorism bull by the horns. Are they willing to take a clear and resolute position renouncing and denouncing both domestic and cross-border jihadist terrorism and proclaim zero tolerance for slaughters like those in Taftan and the debacles as at the Karachi airport? Developing a national will is a prelude to building capacity. Absent that, more massacres and mayhem will remain an inevitable outcome of their muddled priorities.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets @mazdaki