Under siege

Published : Jul 01, 2011 00:00 IST

The radicalisation of Pakistani society and institutions is more worrying than the terror attacks.

in Islamabad

SUCH is the nature of the brand of terrorism that the United States and Pakistan together begot in the 1980s that several days after Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HUJI) commander Ilyas Kashmiri was reportedly killed in a drone attack in South Waziristan, neither country could confirm the death.

All that the world has by way of confirmation is a statement purportedly faxed by HUJI to Pakistani media offices, but questions remain, given the manner in which Kashmiri earlier resurfaced after being declared dead. Adding to the confusion, HUJI released a photograph which it claimed to be that of Kashmiri's face after he was killed. The image was posted on Shamukh al Islam, a website frequented by Al Qaeda sympathisers. It turned out to be that of Abu Dera Ismail Khan, a Lashkar-e-Taiba operative who was part of the suicide squad that attacked Mumbai in November 2008. This, according to the analyst Amir Mir, has put a question mark on the credibility of the HUJI statement. So the guessing game goes on in a narrative that is now clearly being determined by the terrorists.

On April 22, Pakistan's Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) Ashfaq Parvez Kayani reportedly said that the armed forces had broken the militants' back. He was addressing cadets at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul, within hearing distance of the compound where Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden had been hiding. Since that speech, nearly 200 lives have been lost across the country in terrorist attacks. The attack on the Frontier Constabulary camp in Charsadda alone killed 90 people in a matter of seconds.

In May, the terrorists not only told General Kayani that their back was far from broken but also showed him how vulnerable the armed services had become. Six men breached the high-security naval airbase, PNS Mehran, in Karachi and held out against the elite forces of the armed services for well over 12 hours. Two of them even managed to escape despite the heavy presence of security personnel in and around the facility.

That one attack exposed Pakistan's armed services even more than the U.S. raid on the compound in Abbottabad on May 2. If the May 2 action showed up the chinks in the resource-guzzling armour of the Pakistan Army and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) , the May 22-23 siege of PNS Mehran completed that dismal picture by showing up the weaknesses within the Navy. And, through it all, the failure of the intelligence agencies, particularly the much-feared mother-of-all Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

At least in the case of the U.S. raid deep inside the country's territory, the Pakistani security establishment had the excuse that it was dealing with far superior technology as the stealth helicopters used in the Abbottabad operation were something probably no other country could have detected. While questions still remain on the entire operation, the harsh reality is that shooting down U.S. choppers in a non-war zone is not an easy option for any country to exercise.

But none of this holds true for what happened in PNS Mehran. How could six terrorists survive the might of Pakistan's pampered armed forces for over 12 hours? PNS Mehran was a naval base, housing some of the Navy's most prized possessions, including the India-specific PC-3 Orion aircraft. The intruders were hugely outnumbered by the men in uniform. Yet, it took the elite forces of the armed services 17 hours to declare the base sanitised. While only four of the terrorists were killed, 14 security personnel lost their lives in the gun battle.

Of course, the security personnel were hemmed in by the need to ensure minimum damage to the naval assets in the exchange of fire, while the heavily armed attackers were not similarly burdened and could fire and lob grenades indiscriminately. But that brings up the question how they could actually enter the base with rocket launchers and light machine guns. They almost certainly had inside help: the official version itself said that the terrorists, after scaling a rear wall to enter the base, exploited a blind spot between two security cameras to move to the area where one of the two PC-3 Orion aircraft was parked. That they, apart from gaining knowledge of this blind spot, managed to get in so much firepower, moved with all the heavy weaponry for a kilometre and half undetected in a naval base, and announced their presence by exploding the $35 million U.S.-built Orion also suggest inside help.

Subsequent events, relating to the mysterious disappearance and murder of the journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad two days after he wrote an article about the presence of Al Qaeda elements in the naval ranks and in PNS Mehran in particular suggest the extent of the radicalisation of the armed forces.

More than the attacks which are just an outward manifestation of a deep-rooted malaise it is this radicalisation of every institution of the Pakistani state and society that should shake the establishment out of the mindset that has wreaked so much damage on Pakistan. It is almost like shooting oneself in the foot knowingly and repeatedly. While the symptoms of the malady have been evident in society for long now with doomsday prophecies of Pakistan going the Afghanistan way and Al Qaeda being Pakistanised the spread of the disease into the armed forces has not been spoken about much, primarily because they have always kept themselves out of public scrutiny.

One of the earliest recorded instances of religious right-wing elements coming in battle fatigues dates back to the 1995 Operation Khilafat an attempted coup to topple the Benazir Bhutto government and take over the General Headquarters during a Corps Commanders' Conference. Not much detail is available on this in the public domain, but scattered references show that the plan was led by an officer of the rank of major general and included brigadiers, colonels and lieutenant colonels. Also, the plot was linked to HUJI.

More recently, PAF personnel were reportedly involved in an assassination attempt on former President Pervez Musharraf. In fact, explosives used in the attempt had been stolen from a PAF depot. Though the armed services never spoke about it publicly, radicalisation of the rank and file had become a worry for the military leadership, going by what Gen. Kayani is reported to have told Western diplomats in the wake of the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer by a member of the elite force of the Punjab Police earlier this year.

Writing in The New York Review of Books blog, Ahmed Rashid, the author of Descent into Chaos, quoted Gen. Kayani as stating that he did not publicly condole with Taseer's family because there were too many soldiers in the ranks who sympathised with the killer. According to Rashid, the COAS hinted that any public statement could endanger the army's unity.

The natural fallout of all this is apprehension about Pakistan's nuclear installations. Time and again, over the past month, Pakistan's political and military establishment has said that the nuclear programme is secure and has an exclusive security net. That offers little comfort as the personnel however much screened are picked from a society that has been radicalised systematically. If it can be of any consolation, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has issued a statement that it will not attack any nuclear installation because Pakistan is the only Muslim nuclear weapons state.

On one side of the nuclear discourse in Pakistan, Shireen Mazari of the Strategic Technology Resources insists that non-state actors cannot access and take over Pakistan's nuclear weapons or destroy them because the nature of these weapons makes them cumbersome for terrorists who are always on the move to carry around. And, the academic Pervez Hoodbhoy, who believes that Pakistan is using its nuclear programme as an ultimate weapon of blackmail, contends that even the U.S. will not contemplate swooping down on the country to take out its nuclear assets because of the risk of a full-scale war with a nuclear power. Terrorists are thus provided a security net in the country.

While the spectre of nuclear terrorism or even an accident triggered by terrorists remains a constant concern, the bigger danger facing Pakistan is the radicalisation that has been whipped up over the decades to maintain the one-point agenda of projecting the country as being in perpetual danger from its mortal enemy India, which has been made synonymous with Hindus. This curriculum of hatred introduced from the school level and perpetuated systematically through the propaganda machinery provided a fertile ground for the Takfiri school of thought imported to this land of Sufi Islam by the likes of bin Laden, thereby further fuelling sectarianism. and rendering even Sunni Muslims insecure.

With 35,000 Pakistanis already killed in terror attacks, terrorism has consumed more people in Pakistan than all the wars with India put together. Yet, India is Enemy No. 1. This was apparently stated by ISI Director General Shuja Pasha on May 13 during the in-camera briefing of the security establishment to the joint session of Parliament on the Abbottabad operation.

The PNS Mehran attack 10 days later has not forced a course correction, and if anything, Shahzad's murder allegedly by intelligence agencies has been viewed largely as a signal that it will be business as usual in Pakistan. So, the armed forces walked away with a sizable portion of the Budget for the next fiscal, and it remains to be seen whether former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's call to put the defence budget under parliamentary scanner is met. This is one guess everyone is willing to hazard.

Though the events of May offered the civilian set-up enough opportunities to hold the military and intelligence agencies accountable and take the lead in defining national security issues, the harsh reality is that, the return to democracy notwithstanding, it is the security establishment that calls the shots in Pakistan and the elected representatives remain within the Lakshman Rekha that has been drawn for them.

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