Rizwan Tabassum / AFP / Getty

Patience with Pakistan’s government wearing thin amid Taliban violence

Analysis: After Karachi attack, Islamabad will have a hard time ignoring calls for all-out counteroffensive

Pakistan was still reeling from an unprecedented Taliban assault on Karachi's Jinnah International Airport when insurgents opened fire on the airport once again on Tuesday — an attack that vindicated Taliban threats that Sunday's deadly attack was “just the beginning.” If it wasn't already clear, the attacks have underlined a growing belief that the country's peace process, which Pakistan’s government has clung to for months, is dead in the water.

The government in Islamabad now faces calls from some within the country to abandon fears of reprisal and accept that an all-out military campaign against the Taliban may be the only way to quell a 10-year insurgency that has slowly crept toward the country's bustling cities.

Though often referred to under the blanket term Taliban, the perpetrators of this week’s attacks belong more specifically to the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), operationally distinct from but maintaining a broad allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, which maneuvers in the neighboring country.  

In their most ambitious attack since striking a Karachi naval base in 2011, 10 TTP gunmen on Sunday strapped themselves into suicide vests and stormed the supposedly high-security facilities of the country's most important international airport in a well-coordinated attack that left at least 36 dead.

They targeted a transit hub used by all corners of Pakistani society, from its elite, who have been largely insulated from the 10 years of violence, to the city's migrant laborers shuttling off to better-paying jobs in the Gulf. In so doing, the TTP demonstrated a burgeoning capacity to strike urban centers far from its stronghold in the country’s remote tribal belt, and proved that despite reports of its splintering, the insurgency remains strong.

Unlike the government, Pakistan’s military has been “chomping at the bit” to launch a ground offensive into North Waziristan, a tribal region where the TTP’s leadership is sheltered, said Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of several books on the Taliban insurgency.

“What we’re seeing is a breakdown of state institutions, security forces and even the Pakistani intelligence,” he said. “After this, the government has no choice but to give the military the go-ahead in North Waziristan.”

While government incompetence in the aftermath of the attack was unsurprising to many Pakistanis, many were more rattled by the realization that Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, the ISI, failed to protect one of the country’s highest-security facilities. 

And the insurgent group issued a chilling warning over Twitter shortly after the attack, which was apparently in revenge for the death of ex-leader Hakimullah Mehsud, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike last year: "We have yet to take revenge for the deaths of hundreds of innocent tribal women and children in Pakistani airstrikes. It's just the beginning. We have taken revenge for one. We have to take revenge for hundreds."

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say this was Pakistan’s Mumbai,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., referring to the three-day wave of terror attacks that rattled the Indian city in 2008. “But this definitely struck a nerve.”

Not for the first time, Pakistani officials sought to outsource blame for the attacks by telling reporters that the assailants were ethnic Uzbeks and that they were carrying Indian weapons — a none-too-subtle suggestion that Pakistan’s chief rival could be involved.

But Pakistanis’ patience for this denialist rhetoric could be wearing thin. The Karachi terror attacks, which follow an attack on a Sufi shrine and the killings of several Karachi policemen in 2014, mark an escalation of the war in Karachi, a city of 20 million and the country’s economic hub, that seems to run counter to assurances from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that peace could be brokered through talks.

The TTP, though reportedly divided between those who support and oppose the idea of peace talks, is bolstered by a network of alliances with Pakistan's myriad insurgent factions and has demonstrated its capacity for wreaking havoc. It has continued to rattle Karachi and the countryside with bombs and gunfire, even as its leaders sat across the table from Islamabad negotiators these past months.

But Sunday’s attack on a major international airport was especially threatening, and indicated that the Taliban wants to isolate Pakistan even further from the international community, said Rafia Zakaria, a columnist with Pakistan's Dawn newspaper. Most international airlines have long since stopped service to the country, and there are fears that remaining Gulf-based airlines will close up shop if Karachi deteriorates any further.

“It’s an open question what kinds of assurances Pakistani security will be able to give those airlines for the safety of their planes and passengers,” said Zakaria. "This could be a huge hit to Pakistan."

Not just the security breach, but also the sluggish and disjointed response to Sunday's attack raised concerns about the government's ability to manage the Taliban threat. For about an hour after the incident, the local police chief couldn’t even be found, and journalists on the scene said there did not appear to be a security protocol in place for evacuating passengers.

“There was complete confusion about who should respond — will it be the city, the local police, the military?” said Zakaria. “There are no answers to these questions in Karachi, and when you don’t have those answers it makes it easy for the Taliban to carry out these sorts of operations.”

The tragedy in Karachi could also serve as an inflection point for Pakistani public opinion on the use of military might against the Taliban — specifically, an emboldened campaign in North Waziristan. While the military has recently begun what it calls “retaliatory” airstrikes on the TTP stronghold, the government has held the leash of an all-out offensive owing to fierce opposition from opposition parties in Pakistan’s parliament, spearheaded by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.

They and others fear a violent reprisal from the Taliban in the country’s population centers — especially Punjab, which is home to many of Pakistan’s leaders — if the military takes action. This week’s violence, which brought the TTP’s campaign to the heart of a major city, could silence those fears.

Kugelman compared the rising call for military intervention with what happened in 2009, when the TTP wrested control of the Swat Valley and began to impose its radical brand of Islamic law on a region just 50 miles from the capital, Islamabad. The government delayed giving the OK for a ground invasion until a video showing a woman being publicly whipped went viral and triggered widespread public outrage.

“In some ways, this is what the military has been waiting for,” said Kugelman. “Ideally, they’d launch their offensive only when public opinion reached a critical mass.”

At the same time, however, the Taliban’s recent emergence in Karachi has troubling implications for a long-delayed military invasion in North Waziristan. As many have noted, a ground invasion where the Taliban is strongest could be met with retaliation by the insurgent network anywhere across the country within its reach. As this week's attack demonstrated, that includes major cities.

Rashid said the government may have to swallow its worst fears about violence in Pakistan’s wealthiest and most populated region.

“You have to accept the fact that the Taliban will strike in Punjab,” Rashid said. “Of course there will be blowback, there’s a war going on — even if the government doesn’t recognize it.”

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