Neighbourhood Watch

After audacious attack on Karachi airport, Pakistan's war against the Taliban is in limbo

Pakistani society seems divided between those who want the terrorists to be punished, and those who believe that negotiations will solve the problem.

Every time people in Pakistan begin to think that terrorism could come to an end, the terrorists strike again. This time, a group of about ten terrorists attacked Karachi’s Jinnah International airport, which is the country's largest air hub. The attack on Sunday night killed about 17 security officials. Although several references have been made to foreign involvement and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has claimed responsibility, details about the actual identity of assailants and how they executed the plan are not clear.

The attack carries shades of Gregor Samsa from Kafka’s Metamorphosis, who is transformed into a "monstrous vermin". Karachi has served as the hub of terrorists since the 1980s, when they were known as mujahideen. Two decades later, the militant infrastructure is quite solid and, as it was demonstrated in the attack on the airport, has the capacity to penetrate sensitive installations. An even more critical issue is their ability to penetrate the larger security and law-enforcement establishment.

The author Saleem Shahzad had written about how militant infiltration of the Pakistan Navy was possibly a factor behind the 2011 attack on the PNS Mehran naval base in Karachi, not far from the airport. Back in 2002, experts speculated that the Jaish-e-Muhammad had managed to penetrate the Pakistan Air Force as some of its personnel were involved in an assassination attempt on the former president Pervez Musharraf.

Pakistani society seems divided between those who want the terrorists to be punished, and those who believe that negotiations will solve the problem. A popular perception maintains that the government is in favor of talks, but that the military is clamouring for an operation to clear the militants. A couple of weeks ago, the military had started a limited operation in North Waziristan, an area that houses the Haqqani militant network. This group is considered friendly to Pakistan, leading to the perception that North Waziristan would never be attacked. In the event, the limited operation did nothing to damage the Haqqani network, which uses Waziristan for rest and recreation.

A reluctant war

It is not certain if the military wants to conduct a serious operation against the Taliban. It would rather resolve the issue by gradually weakening the militants. This possibility has almost seemed realistic over the past couple of weeks, with news of some factions of the Mehsud tribe parting ways with Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Besides, there is the hope that many militants will focus their energies on Afghanistan once foreign forces withdraw from that country later this year.

It would take quite a lot of nerve, and quite a lot of planning for the government and its armed forces to take on the Taliban. Imran Khan has popularised the idea of peace talks with the Taliban to such an extent that there is little will to launch a full-fledged attack against the group.

In any case, the manufactured media narrative after the Karachi airport attack has diverted attention towards India or Afghanistan possibly being involved in the attack. Watching commentaries on TV news, it would seem that the Taliban are not religious militants that threaten the Pakistani state, but people acting as the Taliban at the behest of regional or extra-regional forces.

The biggest problem that Pakistan will face in case of a serious altercation with the Taliban is the vulnerability of its heartland, Punjab and Sindh. Since the 1980s, numerous militant outfits, some considered friendly by the state and others not, have spread their tentacles across the country. There are neighborhoods in Karachi or in Islamabad’s suburbs that are no-go-areas for security forces due to Taliban presence. In Karachi, there are areas like Manghopir where Taliban hold their courts and operate an extensive infrastructure.

This has resulted in a state of paralysis in dealing with militancy. While the state is frozen and cannot act to solve the problem, there is a real fear of ideological transformation of society. The threat of the monstrous vermin consuming the state and society is very real.

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