City of Flames

TTP and the Karachi Airport Attack

11 Jun, 2014    ·   4507

D Suba Chandran argues that the recent attacks on the Karachi International Airport indicate the reach and resolve of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan

Karachi has been generally referred as the City of Lights. But this Sunday, unfortunately it became the City of Flames – literally and figuratively, with its airport being attacked by the Pakistani Taliban and smoke spiralling out.

While in the coming days there are likely to be multiple analyses on this attack, two simple questions need to be addressed – what does the attack say of what is happening, and what does it mean for the events to come.

Just a week before the attack on Karachi Airport, the social, print and electronic media was full of reports discussing the split within the Taliban, especially in Waziristan. One of the Mehsud factions led by Said Khan Sajna announced in public that they are leaving the TTP fold; one of the spokespersons of the Sajna faction was reported to have announced the following as the reason for the split: “The central leadership has gone into the hands of unseen forces, sectarian issues and extortion in the name of Taliban…We have decided to go our own way.”

Following the above difference, there was a general belief and expectation that the Pakistani Taliban under the leadership of Fazlullah would be weakened and easy to target by the State forces. The fact that Sajna, who had announced the split belongs to the Mehsud tribe in Waziristan made many to believe that with the Mehsuds, the most powerful groups within the TTP deciding to part ways, the TTP would lose its impact and importance. Immediately, following the above announcement, the government also announced a group of tribal elders in Waziristan to evict all the foreign fighters from the region; the State gave them a 15 days ultimatum.

The attack on Karachi airport by the Pakistani Taliban should be interpreted in the above background. Days within the announcement of the split and the ultimatum, the TTP decided to answer to those two developments in an appalling manner. From New York Times and Washington Post in the US to the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, every news agency – print and electronic covered the horror and gave substantial space to what had happened in their front pages and editorials.

So, the Pakistani Taliban has sent a strong and powerful statement not only to the State in Pakistan, but also the rest of international community, that neither the split within the ranks, nor the announcement of an impended attack would frighten them. This seems to be the first major statement of the TTP’s attack on the Karachi Airport.
Second, the attack in Karachi, far away from what is believed to its nerve center – the tribal agencies of the FATA along the Durand Line also convey the reach of the TTP. And this is not the first attack in Karachi. Few years earlier, in May 2011, the Taliban carried out a similar spectacular attack on the PNS Mehran, a Naval base in Karachi, destroying warplanes and also a P-3C Orion using just rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine gun fire. A similar strategy was used few days ago in the Karachi airport attack as well.

Third, the attack also reveals the ability of the TTP to carry out high profile attacks on a regular basis. Consider the following attacks after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto since 2007 – on the GHQ in Rawalpindi (2009), PNS Mehran in Karachi (2011), Minhas Airbase in Kamra (2012) and Bacha Khan International Airport in Peshawar (2012). And in almost all these cases, it was not a huge attack, in terms of numbers; almost like the fidayeen attacks that J&K witnessed during the last decade – a small group of well trained and battle hardened militants (in the case of Karachi Airport attack – ten militants) creating a huge mayhem, leaving security, economy  and regular life in tatters.

It clearly reveals a pattern in terms of both the reach and ability of the TTP; and also perhaps it highlights the failure of the security and intelligence agencies. Worse, some analysts within Pakistan even consider, that there could be some information from inside. A targeted suicide attack of two military/intelligence officers near Islamabad few days ago, by the bombers dressed as beggars in a railway crossing make a section suspect that the TTP could be getting some insider information.

Besides what has happened, what this attack means for the future is also equally important. The Karachi Airport is no ordinary one in the region; it is the largest international airport in Pakistan, acting as a powerful connectivity hub and economic gateway to the country. All leading airlines and cargo planes have Karachi as their main destination than Lahore or Islamabad. The security situation in the rest of Pakistan had already made many of the airlines and related agencies to cut down their operations. With this attack very much inside the Airport, one is likely to see further curtailing of international airlines from Europe in particular, which further acts as a hub to North America.

With the recent budget announcement and the expectation to revive the economy and foreign direct investment, the Airport attack is likely to leave huge trails in the subsequent months on the potential to attract investment, thereby improve the country’s economy. With bad news spreading all over the world about what is happening within Pakistan, any decline in the air traffic further means limited travel to know and understand the ground situation. This connectivity is important for any major corporation to make any investment in Pakistan.

The Karachi Airport attack would also mean the end of peace talks between the government and the TTP, which was actually being dragged during the last few months. Early this year, there were so many expectations within a section, especially within the Sharif government that the talks between the TTP and the government would ultimately yield to peace. Both sides announced multiple committees and even few ceasefires. There were even few reports that the military was not totally happy with what was happening in terms of the talks between the TTP and the political leadership. A section within the Civil Society even suspected that the TTP would only use this opportunity to hit back at a later stage. It appears, that is what has happened.

The dialogue between the TTP and the government is now in tatters. Will the civilian and military leadership come together now, and start a full blown war against the militants and militancy within Pakistan? Will Pakistan stand up against violence and militancy?

In the past, as explained earlier in this commentary, there were numerous instances of high profile attacks led by the TTP, even on military targets for example the bases of Air force and Navy, and also on the GHQ in Rawalpindi. There was even a suicide attack on the President. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s response to militancy so far has been divided with one section strongly advocating negotiations as a means. The State should attempt the same as a strategy; but when such an approach does not yield the desired result, it should also be open to pursue a military strategy. Perhaps, a section in Pakistan, even within the Establishment believes that these non-State actors would be an asset elsewhere in the near future.

What has happened in Karachi Airport shows the reach and resolve of the TTP to continue its violent march.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir