Pakistani security forces ended a nearly 17-hour standoff with a group of militants that had attacked Pakistan Naval Station Mehran in Karachi, destroyed one of the base's P-3C Orion anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft and damaged another. The attack is evidence that the Pakistani Taliban not only have revived their abilities, but enhanced them to the point that they can now operate far beyond their core territory in the northwest.
Pakistani naval and army commandos, along with forces from other security agencies, on May 23 neutralized a team of jihadists who attacked Pakistan Naval Station Mehran, a naval air station adjoining Faisal Air Base in Karachi, after a standoff lasting nearly 17 hours. The casualty count was low — between six and 20 people, according to varied reports — and consisted mostly of security personnel. However, the militants involved in the attack were able to penetrate the protected military facility and destroy one of the base's P-3C Orion anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft while damaging another. These assets, supplied recently by the United States, had substantially enhanced the Pakistani navy's maritime and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. The attack is perhaps the most significant since Taliban attacks on Pakistani military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies increased dramatically following the July 2007 siege of Islamabad's Red Mosque. This is not the first time Taliban militants have demonstrated a capability to strike sensitive security installations in the country. The long list of successful jihadist operations underscores their permeation throughout the Pakistani security apparatus. This has enabled them to continue to wage war against the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate. As non-state actors with ample support from elements within both the Pakistani state and society, the jihadists have access to numerous targets in the military-intelligence complex, which is both unwieldy in size and has worse intelligence on the jihadists than they do on it. A guerrilla force always has an intelligence advantage against a military, but the two have different requirements for survival. Much of the jihadists' advantage comes from being a hidden force fighting a public one. While the ISI quantitatively has much more intelligence, its structure and bureaucratic mechanisms cannot act on information as quickly or efficiently as the jihadists, a smaller entity whose intelligence needs are more restricted. The insurgents therefore have a built-in intelligence advantage until the state is finally itself able to penetrate insurgent networks. The Pakistani military has engaged in generally successful counterinsurgency operations in the greater Swat region in Khyber-Paktunkhwa province, South Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and other parts of the tribal belt. Yet the jihadists continue to demonstrate the capability to attack hard and soft targets across the country. The military operations in 2009 and the killing of several Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leaders did, however, decelerate the pace of attacks in 2010. The lull likely was due to the TTP's forced relocation from South to North Waziristan. TTP needed to regroup and re-establish communications with the different nodes of its national network. The Pakistani military’s major successes in Swat did not really translate into a major dent into the Taliban's warmaking capability. This is because the Swat-based group was more focused on maintaining its Taliban emirate in the area, and unlike the tribal badlands-based TTP, was not heavily involved in staging attacks across the country. Thus, when Swat was re-taken, the success did not translate into a weakening of the TTP insurgency in Pakistan. Meanwhile, the TTP has been working with local allies in Karachi to enhance its striking capabilities in the country's largest urban metropolis. The May 22-23 assault comes on the heels of a number of improvised explosive device attacks in Karachi. Now with this first-ever multi-person attack in the economic hub of the country — at a naval base, moreover — the Taliban appear to have not only revived their capabilities, but enhanced them to the point where they can operate far beyond their core territory in the northwest. Clearly, there exists a local infrastructure of allied terrorist entities in the city that allows the Pakistani Taliban and their al Qaeda backers to expand operations beyond Punjab to Karachi. Also significant is that this attack came just three weeks after the U.S. raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden. The operation in Abbottabad reinforced international perceptions that the Pakistani security establishment lacks the capability to prevent transnational jihadists from using Pakistan as a staging ground for operations. It also fed the idea that elements from that establishment are actively aiding the militants. The Pakistan Naval Station Mehran attack lends further credence to that view and will further aggravate rifts both within the country and between Islamabad and Washington. The country's security situation is unlikely to improve soon. Even Pakistani officials admit that it will take years — or decades — to bring the country's jihadist problem under control, despite the massive resources it has devoted to fighting jihadists. Moreover, each new incident raises fears that Islamabad's ability to handle the threats posed by radical Islamist non-state actors is deteriorating. Certainly, it is not improving.