The 15 to 20 militants who attacked the Pakistani naval base PNS Mehran in Karachi on the evening of May 22 have once more exposed the magnitude of the security threat that violent Islamists pose to Pakistan.
The base is one of the country’s largest naval installations, and the significance of the attack is only rivalled by the October 2009 storming of the Army’s General Headquarters. The attack—claimed to be further revenge for the US killing of Osama bin Laden—was the third in a series of high-profile attacks since the US operation, which included targeting a paramilitary training compound.
The dust has yet to settle, but the latest attack is believed once again to be the work of the Pakistani Taliban. More specifically, many media reports have attributed the attack to Ilyas Kashmiri, a veteran militant commander believed to be a former member of Pakistan’s Special Forces, a major leader during the anti-Indian jihad in Kashmir during the 1990s, and now the military commander of al-Qaeda in Pakistan. Certainly, the sophistication of these attacks is in keeping with his style.
It’s been a cruel year so far for the Pakistani military, and as details emerge of the latest incident, it appears the military’s reputation will be further tarnished at a time when it can ill afford further embarrassment. The P-3C Orion anti-submarine aircraft that were targeted in the latest raid were designed with conflict with India in mind and occupy a vital place in Pakistan’s armoury. That militants were able to so easily target and destroy two of its current fleet of three, which werepainstakingly acquired from the United States, is unlikely to sit well in Pakistan, and comes hot on the heels of the embarrassment over the US operation in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden.
The attackers in this case appear to have demonstrated superior operational expertise, with a clear pursuit of defined objectives with strategic and psychological value. Shaukat Qadir, a retired army officer reportedly told how ‘the first rocket that was fired was at the P-3C,’ while others noted how the attack undermined confidence in the military’s ability to protect vital strategic assets. Militants also appeared to have good tactical expertise, holding up well against security forces. They were reported to be equipped with enough provisions to dig in for over three days, and despite the intervention of Special Forces commandoes, held out for almost 15 hours.
The attack has also raised questions over how the infiltrators were able to enter such a secure facility, with many speculating that they must have had inside help. Certainly, the attackers appear to have had a good working knowledge of the base, completing the destruction of the aircraft within 20 minutes of entering the base. They are also believed to have entered utilizing three separate gates, again implying either collusion or significant failings in security.
Radicalization within the Pakistani security apparatus has been a growing worry, particularly given the praetorian underpinnings of Pakistan. The Army controls virtually all aspects of security and foreign relations, and has dominated the political sphere, rendering any threat to its cohesion especially dangerous for future stability.
Suspicions of radicalization, however, are nothing new. A Pakistani Army Major was suspected of assisting Faisal Shahzad, who planned to bomb New York’s Times Square last year. More recently, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and powerful province, was assassinated by a member of his own security detail despite his being drawn from an elite anti-terrorist police squad.
US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, meanwhile, also allude to a broader problem. A cable from 2006, for example, suggested that the Pakistani Air Force admitted to radicalization in its ranks, and reported on acts of sabotage against its F-16 aircraft to prevent their deployment in support of operations against Taliban militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
The attack has also inevitably raised fears over the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear installations, especially at a time when the country is believed to be furiously increasingthe size of its nuclear arsenal. After all, attacks near nuclear facilities aren’t unprecedented. In August 2008, a suicide bombing killed 65in an attack on an ordnance factory inside the Wah cantonment, where some of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are stored and maintained. Similarly, PNS Mehran itself is only about 15 kilometres from the Mansoor Air Base, another presumed stockpile.
This latest incident will also likely reignite worries over the safety and stability of Karachi, the country’s economic centre that accounts for over half of the country’s GDP. The city has generally been believed to be sheltered from the violence sweeping Pakistan’s major urban metropolises. But its cosmopolitanism and its sprawling Pashtun slums have offered militants both urban sanctuary far from US drones, and also significant access to fundraising, operational and criminal support networks. In 2008, Karachi Mayor Syed Mustafa Kemal declared the city the Taliban’s ‘revenue engine,’ and in early 2010 various senior members of the Afghan Taliban, including military commander Mullah Baradar, were arrested inside the city.
These ‘benefits’ were generally considered likely to save the city, but recent trends have suggested otherwise. In November 2010, an anti-terrorist police compound was attacked inside the city, and there have been reports of attacks on NATO supplies that enter through Karachi’s port. Navy personnel, in particular, have come under recent attack. In a single week last month, militants mounted three attacks against Navy targets, using improvised explosive devices targeting buses carrying navy personnel to work.
No doubt many conspiracy theories will emerge in the aftermath of this tragedy to deflect attention away from the culprits, and indeed many are already being floated. Unhelpful at the best of times, they are in many ways a reflection of how the vast majority of innocent Pakistanis cope with the turmoil outside their control that has engulfed their country.
The danger, however, lies in the tendency for such deflection to obscure the magnitude of the security threat that radical and violent Islamic jihadists now pose to the internal stability and cohesion of Pakistan. Despite years of now quite robust operations in the tribal areas against Taliban militants, their reach appears wider than ever, and their operational capacity undiminished.
There may yet be some good news to come from the PNS Mehran attack. One can hope, for example, that an attack of this magnitude so clearly targeting instruments of Pakistani defence underscores to Pakistan’s security managers the very clear and present danger that radical Islamists pose to security.
It might not be too late to beat the scourge of radicalism in Pakistan. But it requires immediate and focused attention.