Taliban raid: After another blow to its image, Pakistan's military regains control of base

With few trusted institutions remaining in Pakistan, such attacks on the military undermine the political stability of the country.

Athar Khan/Reuters
Officials stand near a damaged aircraft at the PNS Mehran base, after troops ended operations against militants, in Karachi, Pakistan, May 23. Troops recaptured the Pakistani naval air force base on Monday after a 16-hour battle with as few as six Taliban gunmen who had launched their brazen attack to avenge the killing of Osama bin Laden.

A prolonged militant attack on a naval base in the southern city of Karachi has dealt yet another blow to the image of Pakistan's military.

Militants breached the Mehran navy base in a multipronged assault Sunday. Pakistani security forces regained control of the base, but only after an 18 hour battle that gave attackers time to blow up two reconnaissance planes provided to Pakistan by the US. So far, four attackers and 10 security personnel are confirmed dead.

The Pakistani Taliban said it launched the raid to avenge the killing of Osama bin Laden. Though the Pakistani military had no part in killing Mr. bin Laden the US operation showed Pakistan's military to be helpless to stop the US stealth operation. Many perceived that it put Pakistan in a position of subservience to the Americans.

The naval base attack appears designed to highlight similar weaknesses in the military’s capability and remind Pakistanis of the ongoing US relationship by targeting the planes. With few trusted institutions remaining in Pakistan, such attacks on the military undermine the political stability of the country.

“The idea was to shake the state and weaken the institutions and do as much damage as possible to the military and its reputation,” says retired Pakistani Gen. Talat Masood in Islamabad. “Coming on the heels of Osama, [the military’s] image in the eyes of the Pakistani people is in question.”

Air-tight reasons for attack?

Not every analyst is buying this conventional explanation for the attack, however. Some suggest foreign country involvement given the sophistication of the attack and the target.

Describing Mehran naval base as “humongous,” military strategist Rifaat Hussain says the militants had to have very detailed maps to find their way to the sensitive P3C Orion aircraft.

Pakistan started receiving upgrades to the P3Cs from the US under a 2006 deal. Four are currently in the US getting upgrades while five were on the Pakistani base before the attack. They are necessary for monitoring Pakistani waters and beyond for ships and submarines – a threat that would come from India’s growing naval might, not Islamic militants in the hills.

“It’s not possible to maintain [radar] surveillance over the vast [ocean] areas, so you’ve got these long range aircrafts which carry out maritime surveillance,” says P.K. Ghosh, a South Asian maritime expert based in New Delhi. “I think it’s a pretty big loss for the Pakistani naval aviation.”

Beyond their military use, the planes are also a symbol of US-Pakistani cooperation. Americans employed by Lockheed Martin work on the P3Cs at the base. Six Americans were on the base during the attack but are safe, according to the US embassy.

However, the P3Cs were parked near C-130s, another US-made plane that does play a role supporting missions against Islamic militants, says Mr. Hussain. Given that the strike would benefit India militarily more than the Pakistani Taliban, and given the complexity, Hussain says foreigners may have played a role.

“We need to really figure out who the perpetrators were. To me, it does suggest the involvement of external elements which may have provided them with training and access,” says Hussain. “This is beyond the capabilities of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan.”

Ambiguity surrounds recent attacks

Pakistan has already seen its fair share of violence this year, with the most recent major attack on a cadet camp in the the northwest Pakistani town of Shabqadir 10 days ago. While the public has grown more immune to bloodshed, Monday's incident appears to have taken on greater proportion, partly due to the fact that it took place in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, and because a young naval Lieutenant who died has become the "face" of the raids. A facebook page in honor of the photogenic Lt. Syed Yaser Abbas quickly attracted hundreds of followers who posted messages like "You Are The Pride Of Our Country .... You'll Live Forever In Our Hearts ... Insha'Allah."

The ambiguity around who is really responsible for such attacks and just how much the Pakistani military and government works with the United States frustrates the Pakistani public, says Khalid Rahman, a political analyst at the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad.

“I think they still trust the military establishment as far as its strength is concerned. But its approach to the whole [war on terrorism] and its dealing with America, that is a major question in their minds,” says Mr. Rahman.

For many Pakistanis, he says, the root cause for violence in Pakistan is the spillover of the American war effort in Afghanistan – not terrorist forces from inside Pakistan. Therefore, Pakistanis want to see their leaders take a tough line with the Americans against drone strikes and other military cooperation.

Over the weekend, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan led a thousands-strong sit-in designed to block NATO supply routes from Karachi. Mr. Khan's Tehreek-i-Insaaf (Justice Party) has exploited rising anti-American sentiment in the country to call for the removal of the government.

What about Pakistan's nuclear capability?

But for some elites and for many outsiders, the latest attack only raises concerns about the capability of the Pakistani military to keep the country stable and safeguard its nuclear weapons.

“Every such incident weakens the Army’s claim of 100 percent nuclear safety,” says Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear scientist at Quad-i-Azam University.

“As far as I know, this base did not stock nuclear weapons, but it was heavily defended because there had been repeated attacks on navy personnel in previous weeks. The fact that the Pakistani Taliban could still get through the base defenses suggests that they can get through defenses elsewhere too,” he adds.

Issam Ahmed contributed to this article from Islamabad, Pakistan

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