An attack carried out by commandos of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi (capital of the province of Sind), overnight between June 8 and 9, casts many shadows on the future of the country.
Armed with suicide vests, grenades and rocket launchers, TTP militants engaged security forces in clashes that lasted more than 5 hours, resulting in the temporary closure of the airport, as well as in a death toll of 36 victims (including 10 attackers).
The attack, one of the most serious and complex carried out in recent months, comes in the wake of an attempt by the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to negotiate an agreement with the TTP, as well as a few days after a schism within the group. On May 28, the faction led by Said Khan (also known as Sajna), based mainly in South Waziristan and comprising largely members of the Mehsud tribe (which has until now represented the hard core of the TTP), announced their split, due to differences with the current leadership of the group (with Mullah Fazlullah at the apex).
The attack on the Karachi International Airport, the main airport of the country, provides some important indication of the current status of the TTP and the government’s security apparatus.
First, it showcased the persistent ability of the TTP to strike high-profile targets. Despite the recent split, the group can still count on important human and military resources, and now seems willing to raise the level of fighting in an attempt to dissuade the government from any military action. In recent days, many assumed a military campaign in the agency of North Waziristan and neighbouring areas would occur, where the group’s main bases reside. This hypothesis remains plausible, but the attack in Karachi, and those previously carried out in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, demonstrate that a military intervention could unleash a series of attacks throughout the country, including in areas that were hitherto largely untouched by the wave of terrorism. In recent months, Pakistani intelligence has shed light on the TTP’s attempt to strengthen its ties with religious institutions in the capital, hoping to be able to count on more resources in the event of an extended campaign of attacks.
Second, the attack in Karachi highlights serious gaps in the Pakistani security apparatus. During such a fluid and delicate period, the risk of an attack on a high-profile target was evident. Although the Pakistani security forces managed to limit the terrorist’s impact (whose goal was to destroy all aircraft present at the airport of Karachi), the inability to prevent it is a serious defeat for them, and the state as a whole.
Finally, the attack on the airport seems to definitively remove the possibility of an agreement between the government and the TTP (an official decision in this regard will be announced at the end of a Cabinet Committee on National Security summit, scheduled for this week), thus hindering a planned effort to focus on the economy.
In recent months, Pakistan has experienced a small economic boom, with a significant increase in stock market indices, a gradual strengthening of the rupee against major international currencies, and a significant increase in foreign exchange reserves (thanks to loans from the IMF and World Bank). Nevertheless, the overall economic situation is not encouraging, as the country remains unable to attract a more substantial flow of foreign investment (which was approximately $1.4 billion last year). The attack in Karachi in this respect is a serious blow to the government’s plans, showcasing the precarious security environment.
However, even if in the short term there is instability, characterized by an increased terrorist threat in the country’s main cities, the recent TTP split could offer the government some interesting opportunities, allowing it to step up its action against one of Pakistan’s most effective terrorist groups. For this to be possible, however, the government and armed forces will need to overcome their current differences and establish a clear line of action, supported by an effective communication campaign, which could likely win the favor of the population and counter the propaganda of the numerous political groups, and those who sympathize with the jihadist movement.
However, it seems unlikely that there is a general reconsideration of the relationship between some sectors of the state apparatus (particularly intelligence), and various terrorist groups that have bases in Pakistan, but mainly operate outside the country (especially in Indian Kashmir and Afghanistan). Although in recent years there has been significant progress on this point, the state-terrorist relationship seems too close to be ended in a short period. In fact, it would require a general rethinking of the current foreign policy paradigm, and a broader reconfiguration of the existing balance of power within the country; an effort that Pakistan does not seem to be able to make for the time being.
Daniele Grassi is a security advisor for a private company based in Rome.