Tuesday, 10 June 2014
What the Karachi attack says about the Taliban
– JUNE 10, 2014
Only a week ago, the Pakistani Taliban appeared to be on the ropes. Violent rivalries had split the insurgency in two. Peace talks with the government had collapsed. Military jets had pounded militant hide-outs in the tribal belt.
Then on Sunday, the Taliban hit back.
A squad of militant commandos, disguised as government security forces, stormed Karachi’s international airport after dark. They carried food, water and ammunition, apparently in preparation for a long siege, and big ambitions: perhaps to hijack a commercial airliner, government officials said Monday, or to blow up an oil depot, or to destroy airplanes on the tarmac.
The 10 attackers were dead five hours later, shot by soldiers or blown up by their own suicide vests. Yet the audacious nature of the assault shook Pakistan to its core, offering a violent reminder that for all its divisions, the Taliban remain an astonishingly resilient force.
It has kept a reach far beyond its tribal redoubt along the Afghan border, with an ability to penetrate the country’s busiest airport in the largest city. And the discovery that Uzbek jihadis were among the attackers underscores how, even in splinters, the Taliban can draw on an international militant network to conduct sophisticated attacks — which means trouble not just for Pakistan’s government and military, but for American interests in Afghanistan.
The determined attack seems to bear out earlier warnings by counterterrorism experts that the Taliban split two weeks ago was unlikely to erode the group’s capacity for mayhem.
“It’s become a hydra-headed monster,” said Najmuddin Shaikh, a retired head of Pakistan’s foreign service. “They had limited success in Karachi, but maybe that was just our good luck.”
Key to the Taliban’s strength is the web of alliances it has cultivated with fellow militant groups in North Waziristan, the tribal district along the Afghan border that since 2001 has evolved into a vibrant global hub of jihadi money, ideology and fighters — Punjabis, Chechens, Arabs, Central Asians, Afghan Taliban and a smattering of Westerners.
The Taliban’s major ally is the Haqqani network, a formidable force in the Afghan insurgency that held the American soldier Bowe Bergdahl hostage for five years until his release on May 31. But they have other allies too — fighters whose militancy was born elsewhere, but who have joined in the Taliban fight.
Chief among them are the Uzbeks, hard-bitten fighters who followed Osama bin Laden into Pakistan after September 2001, and who have since become an important element of the Taliban insurgency, offering Pakistan fighters what experts call a deep bench of militant training and expertise.
Uzbeks played a central role in two major jailbreaks and an attack on Peshawar’s airport over the past two years. And when Pakistani security forces displayed the bodies of the men who attacked Karachi airport on Sunday — a line of 10 shrouds, one of them topped with a severed head — they said that several of them were Uzbeks.
Speaking by telephone from Waziristan, a Pakistani Taliban commander said the foreign jihadis had participated in the operation in revenge for recent military airstrikes in Waziristan that targeted the Uzbeks. “The I.M.U. has always been a great source of strength for us,” the commander said, referring to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the main Uzbek group. “They were very furious at the strikes, which killed a dozen of their people.”
For Pakistan’s leaders, who for months have been wavering between talking and fighting, the Taliban’s robustness is likely to inform their next step. The prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is due to meet with the army leadership in the next two days, Pakistani officials said, to discuss a possible military response to the Karachi attack.
“This marks an escalation of the war,” said Adil Najam, a Pakistani analyst who is dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. “And it shows that this is going to be a long war.”
Details of Sunday’s assault underlined how well prepared the Taliban were.
The assault started around 11 p.m. when two teams of five militants, disguised as police and army paramilitaries, entered the airport complex over a perimeter wall and through an entrance frequently used by top government officials and foreign dignitaries.
As counterterrorism commandos scrambled to respond, some arriving in armored personnel carriers, the fighting centered on the airport’s old terminal, known as the Hajj terminal, and a nearby cargo building. The militants fought through the night as terrified passengers sat in airplanes stranded on the tarmac. The cargo building became engulfed in flames.
When the battle finally ended an hour before dawn on Monday, officials said, the militants had killed at least 19 people, including four employees of Pakistan International Airlines, the state carrier.
A senior army officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the public, said that seven attackers were killed in the fighting, and another three died when they blew up their suicide vests.
By midafternoon the airport had been reopened for passenger traffic. But with many flights canceled or rescheduled, passengers gathered around airline information counters in an atmosphere that veered from apprehensive to resigned.
Elvina James, 46, who was hoping to fly to Lahore, was philosophical about using the airport so soon. “You have to take some risks in life,” she said.
Ahsan Hameed, a trader on his way to Dubai, said he was putting his faith in the Pakistani Army.
Dr. Sofia Yousuf, on her way to Saudi Arabia with her family for a religious pilgrimage, was still upset by the night’s events. “In Pakistan you get used to these things happening,” she said. “But I’m so sad about what will happen next.”
Karachi is already a city in political tumult. But the Taliban attack represented a rare assault on the privileges of the most affluent citizens of the country’s most cosmopolitan city.
Although some wealthy businessmen from Karachi have been kidnapped by the Taliban, most of the rich have insulated themselves from Taliban violence, which has most often targeted military bases, the police or markets where poor Pakistanis gather.
But Sunday’s attack closed, temporarily, a transport hub that for many is a gateway to meetings in Dubai, holidays in Thailand and summer homes in London.
Some Karachi residents said they feared that Western airlines might reduce their services, as some did after the Red Mosque siege in Islamabad in 2007. Others vented their frustrations on social media, remarking acerbically how airport security officials, who are famous for their great care in searching passengers for illegal alcohol, failed to halt the terrorists.
The Taliban’s boldness in Karachi may help provoke action in Waziristan. In recent weeks, tribal elders from North Waziristan have held meetings with senior government officials in Peshawar — an indication, some say, that they are girding for an impending army operation.
“The T.T.P. has closed the avenue for talks,” said Mr. Shaikh, the retired diplomat, using the abbreviation for the main Pakistani Taliban faction. “And the army knows that if it can get to the root, the branches will wither.”
But any action against the Taliban, as ever, is fraught with skullduggery and politics. There is little indication that, for all its tough talk against the Taliban, Pakistan’s military has abandoned its decades-old policy of indulging some militant groups, like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, who have been willing to further the army’s foreign policy aims.
The military also is caught up in simmering tensions with Mr. Sharif, the prime minister, who has clung to the idea that peace talks can still end the Pakistani Taliban’s insurgency.
“Now that the Taliban have splintered, we could see multiple groups fighting the government in different ways,” said Mr. Najam, the academic. “And so the real test is whether the political will can hold.”