Militants targeted a major military air base some 30 miles northwest of Islamabad early Thursday morning, giving momentum within Pakistan to the prospect of a long-controversial military mission against elements in restive North Waziristan.
The battle between the military and the militants lasted for more than five hours and left nine militants and one soldier dead. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the North Waziristan-based group, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Minhas air base at Kamra includes an aeronautical complex that produces and develops air and ground weapons. But the attack has drawn particular concern because the base has been widely reported to be equipped with nuclear weapons, though the military denies that.
Analysts in Pakistan are calling today’s attack the first of many to come in response to the reports of an operation by the Pakistani military in North Waziristan.
“The Kamra attack is an eye-opener that [the Taliban] can hit us anywhere, anytime, and the speech by the Army chief earlier had the same strategic message in it – that we need to unite against such elements and drive them out,” says a senior military official, referencing a televised speech by Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani on the operation.
The TTP has strengthened itself in North Waziristan in the past five years. The area is also reported to be home to the Haqqani network, which the US government blames for orchestrating attacks inside Afghanistan.
“Thursday’s attack epitomizes the blowback of a military operation in North Waziristan. And the worrying sign is the capacity of these terrorists to attack. If still nothing is done against them, they will only grow stronger. So it reinforces what we have been hearing about, a need of an operation in North Waziristan, where these elements operate freely,” says Cyril Almeida, a columnist who writes for the largest English daily paper in Pakistan.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday that General Kayani told US military officials that Pakistan planed to launch operations against Taliban militants in North Waziristan. Secretary Panetta acknowledged that the combat operation might not include offensives directly attacking the Haqqani network.
"We realize that the most difficult task for any Army is to fight against its own people. But this happens as a last resort. Our real objective is to restore peace in these areas so that people can lead normal lives," the Pakistani Army chief emphasized in a speech on August 14. He then added that "no state can afford a parallel system or a militant force."
Kayani attempted to address the popular sentiment among Pakistanis that the military was bending to America's will. "The fight against extremism and terrorism is our own war, and we are right in fighting it," he said in a televised speech.
Will it work?
However, many are skeptical about whether the operation will be effective if it does not attack the Haqqani network. “Our military is interested in acting against Pakistani-centric militants only, to stop attacks inside Pakistan like the one today,” adds Mr. Almeida.
Locals from North Waziristan also point out flaws in an operation in North Waziristan. “They have been talking about a possibility of an operation for the past three years. Do you think that the Haqqani network is going to sit around and wait?” says Safdar Dawar, president of the Tribal Union of Journalists.
According to intelligence officials who have operated in the tribal belt, the Haqqani network has more than a dozen places in Afghanistan to operate from.
“Other elements operating in North Waziristan have no place to go and can be targeted as they have been cornered into this area,” says Brig. Asad Munir, who belongs to the tribal belt and retired from military a few years ago.
Munir, who has served in key intelligence positions in the tribal belt, says the military operation will improve relations between Pakistan and America, but not for that long. And given the terrain between Pakistan and Afghanistan, security experts say it is almost impossible to seal this border.
“North Waziristan has been the most strenuous issue between the two countries, and the US believes if Pakistan acts in this area, the insurgency in Afghanistan will be controlled. But without border control from both sides, the operation may not be so successful,” the brigadier adds.
This is not the first time a military base in Pakistan has been attacked.
In 2009, the headquarters of the military came under a siege that lasted for 20 hours. And last year, an attack at a naval base in the port city of Karachi lasted for almost 15 hours.