The escalating war against the Pakistani state

Within hours of the successful May 2 U.S. military operation to kill Osama bin Laden, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – an avowed al-Qaeda ally — promised revenge. On May 13, close to 100 graduates of the paramilitary Frontier Corps lost their lives to two motor-bike riding suicide bombers in Shabqadar near Peshawar, one of the ...

ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images
ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images
ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images

Within hours of the successful May 2 U.S. military operation to kill Osama bin Laden, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) - an avowed al-Qaeda ally -- promised revenge. On May 13, close to 100 graduates of the paramilitary Frontier Corps lost their lives to two motor-bike riding suicide bombers in Shabqadar near Peshawar, one of the deadliest attacks on Pakistan's security forces in recent years. Nearly ten days later, some 10 to 12 intruders turned Pakistan Navy's Mehran base in Karachi into a battlefield. The siege ended May 23 after almost 17 hours of hostilities, with at least a dozen casualties to the Navy.

The deadly and prolonged attack Sunday evening on the base is the latest reminder of how vulnerable the country's defense installations are. Located in the main part of the city, the Shahrah-e-Faisal, the base is jointly used by Pakistan's army, air force and navy. NATO forces also occasionally use the base for logistics operations between the strategic port of Karachi and Afghanistan. Yet though the TTP quickly claimed credit for the assault, its careful planning and execution - the fighters, a Taliban spokesman claimed, carried food and ammunition for three days - recalled the "fidayeen" style of drawn-out suicide attack pioneered by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Indian-administered Kashmir against Indian personnel and installations, and used to devastating effect in 2008 in Mumbai.

Within hours of the successful May 2 U.S. military operation to kill Osama bin Laden, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – an avowed al-Qaeda ally — promised revenge. On May 13, close to 100 graduates of the paramilitary Frontier Corps lost their lives to two motor-bike riding suicide bombers in Shabqadar near Peshawar, one of the deadliest attacks on Pakistan’s security forces in recent years. Nearly ten days later, some 10 to 12 intruders turned Pakistan Navy’s Mehran base in Karachi into a battlefield. The siege ended May 23 after almost 17 hours of hostilities, with at least a dozen casualties to the Navy.

The deadly and prolonged attack Sunday evening on the base is the latest reminder of how vulnerable the country’s defense installations are. Located in the main part of the city, the Shahrah-e-Faisal, the base is jointly used by Pakistan’s army, air force and navy. NATO forces also occasionally use the base for logistics operations between the strategic port of Karachi and Afghanistan. Yet though the TTP quickly claimed credit for the assault, its careful planning and execution – the fighters, a Taliban spokesman claimed, carried food and ammunition for three days – recalled the "fidayeen" style of drawn-out suicide attack pioneered by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Indian-administered Kashmir against Indian personnel and installations, and used to devastating effect in 2008 in Mumbai.

A similar raid on the army General Headquarters (GHQ) – the heart of the Pakistani military establishment – in October 2009 was the first terrorist attack to truly stun Pakistan’s establishment. The ensuing siege of a part of GHQ ended after nearly 22 hours with a counter-commando raid. Earlier that month, as well as in March of that year, the Manawan Police Training School on the outskirts of Lahore endured similar attacks by armed militants, which lasted several hours. The attack in March that year on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore also bore hallmarks of the LeT-style commando attack.

And on December 4, 2009 an almost identical attack was staged on a mosque in the garrison of Rawalpindi, where the GHQ is located, left nearly 40 people dead. Most of them had just finished their Friday prayers and were about to disperse when the attack began. The son of the then corps commander of Peshawar, General Masood Aslam, was also among the victims of the deadly strike. Attacks on three ISI establishments in Lahore, Faisalabad and Peshawar also allegedly involved militants who had been trained in storming a heavily-protected target and killing those who got in their way.

The raid on Mehran, coming within a month of multiple attacks on Pakistan Navy buses and installations, once again raises serious questions about the level of preparedness within the security establishment. Yet more importantly, it underscores the extended reach of al-Qaeda and affiliated groups, as well as the manner in which tactics and tools once used by groups in the thrall of the Pakistani state are increasingly being turned against it.

The storming of Mehran has clearly exposed inadequacies in the defense and security arrangements, inadequacies for which a restless public will demand an explanation. Yet the attack raises far more troubling questions about Pakistan’s long-held "double game" of supporting "good" militants while fighting "bad" ones. Does the string of attacks on military and intelligence assets mean those trained in these tactics against India have now turned on their past benefactor? Is it the hatred for the military establishment they believe has betrayed them, or do these attacks mark a full surrender to the ideology of al-Qaeda that has unleashed former state-sanctioned mujahideen on the Pakistani establishment? It is likely some combination of the two, but regardless, the increasingly violent turn paired with the growing military aptitude of Pakistan’s foes means that they country’s military may soon be forced to reconsider the means they have deployed for so long to meet their regional ends.

Imtiaz Gul heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies — CRSS-Islamabad — and is the author of The Most Dangerous Place.

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