Exactly a week after the attack on Pakistan’s largest international airport, at Karachi, the military launched ground forces into the federally-administered North Waziristan tribal agency that is crawling with terrorists. The operation, Zarb-e-Azb, commenced on June 15, and it affirmed Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif’s bold break with the ossified India-centric worldview shared by his predecessor and his countrymen.
The military offensive defies the pat anti-India consensus mindlessly regurgitated after the Karachi Airport attack. It also put an end to misplaced, months-long attempts by the government to negotiate some sort of peace with the Pakistani Taliban and their genocidal partners. Whatever their objective was, the 10 terrorists who laid siege to the airport clearly failed to achieve it: the total damage they wrought has been estimated at $5 million; the 2011 attack on PNS Mehran in Karachi was far costlier.
Cable news channels, dizzy from the marsh gas of ideology, peddled the “India did it” refrain and churned it endlessly for days to come. The written version of this was expressed in the Urdu press, which articulates nationalist passions even more effectively. In an effort to prove that India was behind the attack, TV anchors declared that the Taliban-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan terrorists who attacked the airport were carrying Indian weapons and, just as Indian soldiers do, blood-clotting injections on them. But when an injection pack was shown close up on TV, the importer’s address clearly indicated a shop in Karachi. Likewise, the SIM cards used by the attackers were proven to have been purchased in Nawabshah, Sindh, and not Afghanistan. The blame-India factor persisted even after the Rangers said the terrorists were likely Uzbek and that the make and provenance of the weapons they used were still being determined.
But the frog chorus continued. A number of sharp-tongued retired Pakistani military officers who are talk show regulars blamed India—and the United States. In the Urdu newspaper Dunya, former Inter-Services Intelligence chief Ziauddin Butt, former air marshal Shahid Latif, and retired general Rahat Latif were quoted blaming “foreign agencies” for the attack. They also asserted that these agencies were funding and training Taliban terrorists and their affiliates and equipping them with “Indian weapons.”
Linking these statements to the rage drummed up by antigovernment politicians, further reportage implicated Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the Karachi attack, saying his soft approach to the newly elected anti-Pakistan Indian prime minister was responsible for the latest foreign-hand incident. Fire-breathing politician Sheikh Rashid, aligned informally with Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, predicted an attack on Parliament in Islamabad “very soon.” “Had Pakistan done something like this in India,” he said, “India under Modi would have attacked Pakistan.” The message was: Attack India now and teach it a lesson. But the real objective was to immolate the Sharif government for its overtures to India.
Pressed by this flurry of accusations, Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed stated that “a foreign hand cannot be ruled out.” An Urdu daily also reported that the government had ordered scrutiny of the passport records of all Indians who had visited Pakistan in the past three years.
Owning the Offensive
Pakistani Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid owned the attack. It “was an act of revenge for the 2013 killing of [Pakistani Taliban chief] Hakimullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone attack,” he said. “Pakistan used the peace talks as a tool of war. We have yet to take revenge for the deaths of hundreds of innocent tribal women and children from Pakistani air strikes. It’s just the beginning. We have taken revenge for one; we have to take revenge for hundreds.”
This was followed, oddly, by an online message from Usman Ghazi, emir of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: “Yesterday at midnight, 10 brave martyrdom-seeking mujahideen of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan wearing their explosives-filled vests attacked a very special section of Karachi International Airport of Pakistan which is not visible to the common folk visiting the airport.” The terrorist group’s website carried pictures of the 10 men chosen from some thousands of Uzbeks who have been sheltering in North Waziristan for at least two decades and routinely attacking Indian installations in Afghanistan under the tutelage of the Haqqani network. The 10 young terrorists were likely born in Pakistan. “The Karachi Airport attack was executed to avenge the latest full-scale bombardments and night attacks with fighter jets by Pakistan’s apostate Army which started on May 21 in Waziristan,” said Ghazi.
The blame-India chorus was unable to cloud the Army’s clarity.
Despite the Pakistani Taliban’s assertion of ownership, the attack was most certainly carried out by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. This discrepancy gave or should have given the foreign-hand theorists hung up on India something to think about. It did give General Sharif added clarity. When the smoke settled, the Pakistan Army struck back. Its ongoing operation is targeting foreign militant hideouts in particular in North Waziristan.
A day before Prime Minister Sharif announced the operation in the National Assembly, the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations wing declared that, “on the directions of the government, the Armed Forces of Pakistan have launched a comprehensive operation against foreign and local terrorists who are hiding in sanctuaries in North Waziristan.” Subsequently, the prime minister told the press that the Army must confront the Pakistani Taliban and their foreign adjuncts until all of them are removed from the scene. Most political parties, including those that had been pleading for “peace” talks with the terrorists, lined up behind the Army and welcomed the offensive named after the sword of Islam’s Prophet.
The Karachi Airport attack also brought back U.S. drone strikes on targets in the federally-administered tribal areas. The six-month lull between the latest drone strikes, on June 11 and 12 in North Waziristan, and the last one was explained by Washington as a demonstration of support for Islamabad’s “peace” talks with the Taliban. On June 11, drones killed four militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and two from the Movement of the Taliban in Punjab. On June 12, drones killed Haji Gul of the Haqqani network and two Afghan Taliban commanders who were en route with explosives to Afghanistan. The Reuters wire agency claimed these strikes had come at the urging of Pakistan.
Like with the Karachi Airport attack, Pakistanis had also reacted to the 2011 PNS Mehran attack by blaming India, and the U.S. That attack came shortly after the shocking discovery and PlayStation-style killing of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. Antipathy toward the U.S. for breaching Pakistan’s “sovereignty” and embarrassing it globally for wittingly or unwittingly harboring bin Laden was the cause of the national refusal at that time to see the Taliban for who they were: enemies of the Pakistani people.
According to slain journalist Saleem Shahzad, the Mehran attack was an inside job. “The brazen Al Qaeda-linked attack on the Pakistan Navy’s Mehran air base in Karachi on May 22 marks the violent beginning of an internal ideological struggle between Islamist elements in the Pakistani Armed Forces and their secular and liberal top brass. More than 10 heavily-armed militants attacked the base from three sides [blowing up two P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft while damaging another]. At least 20 security personnel are known to have been killed.”
Why did Shahzad refer to “an internal ideological struggle between Islamist elements in the Pakistani Armed Forces and their secular and liberal top brass” in what might have been one of his last reports? He had found that Ilyas Kashmiri, an Al Qaeda operative formerly associated with the Pakistan Army in connection with the jihad in India-administered Kashmir, had attacked Mehran base after challenging the naval chief to release from captivity scores of Navy personnel found to have joined Al Qaeda.
Political parties, even those that had been pleading for ‘peace’ talks, have lined up behind the Army.
This news wasn’t altogether surprising. In December 2000, cleric Maulana Akram Awan raised the flag of rebellion at his seminary at Manara, Chakwal. Awan threatened to have thousands of his disciples lay siege to Islamabad and “offer their throats to be cut” unless the-then Army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf (who tried to deradicalize the Army) “enforced” Islam across the country. The federal minister for religious affairs visited Awan, said his prayers behind him, and made him recall his threatened “revolution.” But something or someone made Awan go back on his word and resume his threat. This prompted a visit from the interior minister, a former general, after which Awan postponed his planned march on Islamabad indefinitely.
Between when he first issued his threat and when he finally took it back, Awan received a number of visitors allegedly or actually historically tied to the country’s security establishment to egg him on. These included Qazi Hussain Ahmed of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Maulana Azam Tariq of Sipah-e-Sahaba, Sufi Muhammad of Malakand, and the ambitious former major-general Zaheer-ul-Islam Abbasi. (In 1995, Abbasi attempted a coup that arguably would have killed then-prime minister Benazir Bhutto. He was court-martialed and let out of jail in 1999.) Awan’s threat was greeted by these visitors as an opportunity to rid of the Ataturk-loving Musharraf, a secularist leading an Islamicized Army. Musharraf wasn’t the first Army chief to be found wanting in Islamist credentials. Before him, Gen. Jehangir Karamat was subjected to the same harassment by the subordinates who surrounded him. Even the ISPR’s journal Hilal had written against him while he was chief.
Coming back to Ilyas Kashmiri, some sources had designated him a member of the SSG commando regiment of the Pakistan Army, a charge denied by Rawalpindi. What was not denied, however, was that Musharraf had presented Kashmiri with monetary reward after the latter brought back the severed head of an Indian officer from Kashmir. After deserting to Al Qaeda, Kashmiri was able to lure other personnel, like Capt. Haroon Ashiq, to defection. Ashiq killed former major-general Feisal Alvi in 2008 as punishment for having led a commando operation in Waziristan against the Taliban. Ashiq was acquitted by a court in 2011.
Radicalization within the Armed Forces has not been limited to some personnel alone. In 2010, Faisal Shahzad, the son of a retired senior officer from the Air Force, visited Waziristan, met with Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, and tried to blow up Times Square in New York with a car bomb. Last year on the call of Al Qaeda, Umar Abdullah, the son of a senior Army officer, killed the Federal Investigation Agency’s prosecutor Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, who was working on uncovering the truth behind Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Some 10 years prior to that, the son of a lieutenant-colonel implicated in an assassination attempt on Musharraf joined Al Qaeda.
Concerns about an “ideological struggle” between those issuing orders and those who must follow them have cropped up again after the Karachi Airport attack. Uzbeks provided the manpower for the Bannu jailbreak in 2012 that sprang Adnan Rasheed, an Al Qaeda operative and former Air Force officer also implicated in a plot to kill Musharraf. Rasheed, whose Ansar-ul-Aseer militant group includes Uzbeks, is believed to have been involved in planning the airport attack, which, like the Mehran assault, betrays some degree of insider collusion.
After 9/11, wrote the late journalist Saleem Shahzad, “Pakistan’s top brass took a policy turn and joined America’s ‘war on terror,’ but a large chunk of officers took retirement and, with serving colleagues, helped the Taliban. This changed the dynamics of the Afghan war theater. This collection of former and serving officers was responsible for a number of attacks on the military, including on the military headquarters and against ex-president Musharraf.”
Adnan Rasheed is believed to be one of the planners of the Karachi Airport attack.
There have been steady reports about Islamists inside Pakistan’s military who believe in the cause of Al Qaeda more than their oath of loyalty to their country. In Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, former U.S. defense secretary Robert M. Gates writes: “In every instance when we had provided a heads-up to the Pakistani military or intelligence services, the target was forewarned and fled, or the Pakistanis went after the target unilaterally, prematurely, and unsuccessfully.”
Karachi, You’re Killing Me
Since Karachi reportedly earns them a billion dollars annually through kidnappings and extortion, this battlefield is crucial for the goal of Al Qaeda and its affiliates to survive as a global movement. This sum doesn’t include extortions made by the city’s criminal elements who have adopted the Taliban’s methods of intimidation. Karachi has thus been Talibanized, not only in the way its people think but also in the way its criminals operate.
Pre-Partition Karachi was a model city, self-consciously built by its Gujarati-speaking elite comprising Memons, Bohras, Aga Khanis, Parsis, and Hindus. It had an evolved sense of commercial ethic, which the rest of Pakistan, populated by “warrior” races, never learned. It had a population of 45,000 and a local government idealized by the rest of India for its civic virtue. After almost 67 years, after pell-mell external and internal migration, it is a sprawling megapolis bursting at the seams with a population inhabiting mostly illegal shantytowns with no-go areas.
At Partition in 1947, some 600,000 refugees hit Karachi and made it a problem city. Some idea of the Karachi crisis can be formed from the fact that between 1951 and 1972, its population grew by 217 percent. This happened after the government established an industrial estate attracting migration from the hinterland. From 1972 to 1978, Karachi received 35,000 refugees from Bangladesh. From 1977 to 1986, about 300,000 people came in from Iran and Afghanistan. Between 1998 and 2011, the city’s population increased from 9.8 million to 21.2 million. This included an influx of Pakhtuns after the 2009 military operation in the north. The city also today houses some 200,000 immigrants from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.
Today, Karachi is the largest Pakhtun city in the world, the largest Shia city in Pakistan, and has the most toxic concentration of jihad-spitting madrassahs in the country. It accounts for 25 percent of Pakistan’s GDP, half of the country’s bank deposits, and 72 percent of the country’s capital. Its infrastructure, meant to serve only 400,000 people, is being made to serve over 20 million.
Says architect Arif Hasan, a founding member of the Asian Coalition of Housing Rights: “Almost 75 percent of the city’s population lives in settlements or neighborhoods segregated on the basis of ethnicity. This is not just true of low-income settlements but also of lower middle-income and some middle-income settlements as well. As such, the city is physically divided along ethnic lines and, in an increasing number of cases, along religious lines as well. Crossing from one ethnically defined neighborhood to the other is, in many cases, no longer possible.”
Some politicians, like Imran Khan, claim there was no terrorism in Pakistan before 9/11 and that it began only after Musharraf decided to fight “America’s war.” The argument is, therefore, developed that if Pakistan gets out of this “American war,” terrorism will subside. The truth is that terrorism came from certain ideological choices made by Gen. Zia-ul-Haq on Afghanistan and the Gulf. In 1987, terror spread in Kurram and Gilgit where the Shia were ruthlessly targeted. The general-president had a bad personal equation with Iran’s Imam Khomeini, who knew of Zia’s real relationship with Arab states.
There are at least 25 flavors of Al Qaeda and Taliban-linked terrorist groups present in Karachi.
Of course, targeted assassinations thought to be carried out by jihadist groups actually predate 9/11 and the U.S.-led war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Karachi’s seminaries like Jamia Binoria inspired Sunni militant groups Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and had close ideological and operational links with Punjab-based Jaish-e-Mohammad, known for its jihad in India-administered Kashmir. Karachi is thus a natural home for militants.
Writing for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point in 2012, Pakistani journalist Zia Ur Rehman said: “Karachi is considered an attractive hideout for Al Qaeda and Taliban groups because the sheer size of the city, combined with its assortment of ethnic and linguistic groups, makes it easy to live and operate unseen. Al Qaeda and Taliban groups can also rely on logistical and other support from Karachi’s assortment of militant, religious, and sectarian groups. The capture of several high-profile Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders from Karachi shows that both organizations are operating in the city. Security experts argue that Al Qaeda has successfully merged with Karachi-based local militant groups in Pakistan, and is in the process of shifting its base from the tribal areas to urban areas, especially Karachi, to avoid drone strikes.”
Violence in Karachi has spiked since end-2012, and Taliban and Al Qaeda groups have established a firm foothold there. There are at least 25 flavors of Taliban and Al Qaeda available in the city. The hissing alphabet soup of militants includes the Badr Mansoor group, the Qari Zafar group, the Qari Shakeel group, the Akram Lahori group, the Farooq Bengali group, the Punjab Taliban, Jandullah. Several parts of the city controlled by such groups are no-go areas, even for law-enforcement personnel. The Karachi Airport attackers did not actually have to trudge from North Waziristan laden with ammunition. Karachi’s Manghopir, held by the Mehsuds of Waziristan, can provide men and materiel from its own resource-base.
Setting Things Right
After the Karachi Airport attack, the ideological tide seems to have turned despite the noises about India and its alleged rascality in Balochistan.
Even the popular, easy-on-the-Taliban PTI has supported General Sharif’s military operation, which was held up for months because of Islamabad’s insistence on truce/surrender talks with the militants. The “peace” talks, conducted by Islamabad from a position of weakness—which galled the Army—needlessly empowered the religious parties and provided terrorism with the rhetoric of righteousness. The interregnum of talks may have done more damage than Pakistan can compute: not only have the religious parties become unapologetic about terrorism, but the country’s 20,000 seminaries have been emboldened in their covert recruitment of fresh warriors of Talibanization.
It is certainly not enough to simply launch attacks on the Pakistani Taliban and destroy their sanctuaries. To roll back the state’s slow-burning implosion, the anti-India mindset, which has helped spawn terrorists, must also be revisited and rationalized.
From our June 21-28, 2014, issue.