It was a well planned and audacious attack by over a dozen heavily armed militants of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), who, along with ten Uzbek fighters, successfully penetrated the security barriers of Karachi’s Jinnah international airport (JIA). It was not only an assault on the country’s biggest airport, considered the gateway of Pakistan, but an open declaration of war against the state.

Pakistan was saved from what could have turned out to be a potentially disastrous scenario with serious implications for international aviation operations in Karachi. It could have been much worse, had the brave personnel of Airport Security Force (ASF), who bore the initial brunt, not stood their ground resolutely in the face of determined terrorists.

The attack was executed in the middle of the night when international air traffic is the heaviest at JIA. Armed with hand grenades, rocket propelled grenades/launchers, explosives, automatic weapons and suicide vests, the attackers’ objectives were manifold. While they failed to destroy Pakistani/foreign airplanes parked on the tarmac, a few PIA airliners reportedly suffered minor damages. However, major damage was inflicted to the cargo area including NATO–ISAF cargo bound for Afghanistan.

That the attackers carried dry rations in large quantities indicated their plans to sustain protracted hijacking or a hostage situation involving Pakistani/foreign nationals present at the airport. The TTP spokesman later claimed that the attackers planned to hijack planes to use them for hitting other targets. Destruction of fuel storage tanks or damage to vital navigation/communication infrastructure of Civil Aviation Authority would have been equally catastrophic.

While the sacrifices of the ASF personnel are fully acknowledged, let us admit that the JIA attack was clearly a grave security failure. Pakistanis are shocked at how so many intruders, including many foreigners with Uzbek features, donning ASF uniforms with fake IDs and carrying loaded bags, made their way into the old section of the airport without being noticed or challenged by ASF guards. Was there any ‘inside’ facilitation in this attack?

It seems that no lessons were learnt from similar suicide assaults on the Mehran naval aviation base in Karachi in 2011 and the PAF Kamra base in 2012, which resulted in the loss of valuable strategic assets. The Bacha Khan international airport in Peshawar, that houses PAF and army aviation operational setups too, came under TTP attack in 2012, but luckily no loss occurred.

Instead of adopting a proactive approach, our security organizations prefer to remain reactive. When it is well known that militants launched strikes on airbases/airports from adjoining localities, then periodic search operations in areas bordering sensitive installations should have been accorded a high priority.

The firing incident on ASF Academy that followed the main airport attack confirmed presence of terrorist hideouts in JIA’s vicinity. The important question is: why were areas in close proximity to JIA not subjected to security sweeps?

If, in the past, militants repeatedly broke through multi-layered security cordons and reached the tarmacs in these well guarded civil/military setups, then the nation expects that security tiers should have been strengthened in and around other vital national installations. Should we therefore expect that security barriers at Lahore’s Allama Iqbal or Rawalpindi’s Benazir Bhutto international airports or other smaller airports too, could easily meet a similar fate?

Some heads must roll, and roll fast. A high level federal probe is essential to identify the grave security and intelligence failures as well as coordination/administrative lapses that contributed to the crisis at Karachi airport and caused the loss of valuable Pakistani lives. The criminal negligence related to unfortunate deaths of many workers in cold storage building is unpardonable and should not go unpunished.

After the June 8 chaos and fiasco witnessed at JIA, the Prime Minister’s incumbent advisor on aviation, who has a controversial past, has no moral authority to remain in office. In March 2014, a parliamentary panel had reportedly recommended the federal government to revisit its decision of re-appointing Mr. Shujaat Azeem as aviation advisor/special assistant, who had earlier resigned in July 2013, when the Supreme Court found him unfit for the same job.

The fact that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which is aligned to the TTP, also claimed responsibility for the Karachi attack, highlights the serious threat posed by foreign fighters to our national security. These include Uzbek, Tajik, Arab and even Chinese militants who seem to be well entrenched in the North Waziristan Agency (NWA).

The Karachi airport attack indicates that surgical air strikes in NWA have not degraded the militants’ capacity to hit major installations within the country. Instead, collateral damage by retaliatory air targeted operations have alienated NWA’s tribal population and led to their mass exodus to Afghanistan or major cities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Winning the hearts and minds of our Pashtun tribes is essential if we require their support to evict foreign fighters from FATA.

After the JIA siege, the doors are shut to dialogue process with TTP (Fazlullah group). However, peace must be pursued with pro-talks elements like TTP’s breakaway Sajna group, that recently rebelled against mainstream TTP head, Maulvi Fazlullah, while renewing earlier peace accords with pro-government Hafiz Gul Bahadur group, and maintaining friendly relations with pro-Pakistan Haqqani elements in NWA.

It is strange that while on one hand, the government talks about ‘foreign hands’ behind the Karachi tragedy, it is not prepared to take a break from its policy of appeasement towards our ‘friendly’ Eastern neighbor.

One can imagine the nationwide hue and cry in India and call for action, had Pakistani weapons been discovered in any terrorist act on Indian soil. Pakistanis fail to understand why Islamabad was ignoring public sentiment and hesitating from even lodging a simple diplomatic protest to India in this case.

While a deliberate and decisive military response to eliminate the hostile TTP-IMU nexus in NWA may not be far away, the state needs to gear up its internal security apparatus to counter likely blowback effects in major cities.

If terrorism has to be contained if not totally defeated, the government must implement the national internal security policy, activate the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), alongside establishing a joint intelligence secretariat and rapid response forces in major cities on war footing.

 The writer is a retired Brigadier and political/ defence analyst.

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@FarooqHKhan