Karachi attack shows Pakistani Taliban fighting to reassert itself

The breaching of key international airport's defences highlights Islamabad's inability to protect high-profile sites in a city in which insurgents are gaining momentum.
Smoke rises hours after militants launched an assault at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi late on Sunday. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan have claimed responsibility for the attack. Rizwan Tabassum / AFP Photo
Smoke rises hours after militants launched an assault at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi late on Sunday. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan have claimed responsibility for the attack. Rizwan Tabassum / AFP Photo
The brazen assault on Karachi's airport failed to achieve its main objectives, but is a sign that the Pakistani Taliban will launch similar operations to prove its relevance amid military strikes on its strongholds and a bloody power struggle with a breakaway faction.

Fifteen hours after the attack began, Jinnah International Airport reopened. The terrorists, who carried food supplies and were armed for a prolonged siege, all were killed before they could get close to the airport's main terminal.

But the breaching of Pakistan's busiest international airport exposed the state's inability to protect the high-profile facilities, and shook the beleaguered city, where the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan is gaining clout in Karachi's violent ecosystem.

The militants' war, and the war against them, is no longer confined to the tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan, but is now also centred in Pakistan's largest city and economic hub.

The attack came after nascent peace talks between prime minister Nawaz Sharif's government and the TTP that began in February collapsed in recent weeks. The Pakistani military have renewed air strikes against TTP sanctuaries along the border in North Waziristan.

The military, which opposed the talks, had signalled it was running out of patience with the government's approach as TTP attacks continued during the ceasefire.

Civil-military tensions have reached a tipping point, with army chief General Raheel Sharif pushing for clearance to launch an all-out operation to take control of North Waziristan before the withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan create a security vacuum across the border. The TTP's leader, Mullah Fazlullah, is based in Afghanistan.

The airport attack is a show of strength by Fazlullah's group and "the key takeaway is that whatever restraint there may have been is now gone", said Arif Rafiq, an analyst at the Middle East Institute think-tank. "They are going to continue with these type of attacks and the military will engage in reprisal attacks.

"The question," he added, "is will the Pakistani civilian and military leadership be able to develop a cohesive strategy to target the TTP and other groups in the longer term."

So far the answer is no, since the powerful military continues to clash with the elected government over how to tackle the militants. Mr Sharif has preferred to engage in doomed talks and defer difficult decisions that could spark more attacks, while the military and ISI continue their strategy of backing some militant groups as proxies in Afghanistan in an effort to maintain influence after Nato forces pull out.

The military cannot launch an all-out offensive on North Waziristan without the government's approval, but it is likely to escalate air strikes and ground assaults in the short term, while the "shadow war" conducted by the ISI continues, Mr Rafiq said.

Disagreements among TTP factions over the peace negotiations erupted into open warfare last month, scuttling the talks, but also weakening the group. The ISI had been working to foment discord between the Mehsud tribal factions loyal to Fazlullah, who opposes negotiations, and groups allied with a militant commander known as Sajna who supports talks.

The TTP split was the culmination of those efforts. A number of Fazlullah's commanders have recently been killed in drive-by shootings in North Waziristan. In Karachi, Sajna's men have the green light to counter their erstwhile comrades.

The factionalisation and pressure on Fazlullah is likely to push the group to carry out more attacks in Pakistani cities, which could also have the unintended effect of galvanising public opinion in favour of the army's desired North Waziristan operation.

Geopolitical dynamics are also a factor in the terrorist attacks, as India, Pakistan and Afghanistan position themselves for the withdrawal of most US forces from Afghanistan later this year.

Afghanistan's intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, provided support to Fazlullah's TTP faction to counter Pakistani support for the Haqqani Taliban and to direct militant groups towards Pakistan as the US security presence recedes.

NDS officials have admitted to journalists that they carry out attacks inside Pakistan after large-scale strikes by militants they think are backed by the ISI, such as the May 22 assault on the Indian consulate in Herat.

"There is definitely a tit-for-tat going on in the region," Mr Rafiq said.


Published: June 9, 2014 04:00 AM


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