The attacks by Pakistan's main Taliban rebel alliance have captivated global media. The militants struck Jinnah International Airport, the country's largest domestic and international civil aviation facility. In reality, however, a bold attack by the Taliban was expected, especially after peace talks broke down between Islamabad and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and government forces launched unprecedented air and ground operations against the group in North Waziristan
. Indeed, shortly after media leaks in mid-May signaled the collapse of the talks, militants picked up their attacks throughout the country.
Beyond these immediate triggers, jihadist insurgency generally follows a cycle. After periodic lulls, militants try to catch the state off-guard with attacks on critical civil and military infrastructure. This is a cycle unlikely to be broken unless Islamabad can gain the upper hand in its intelligence war with the jihadists.
The most recent spate of attacks shows that the 40-day truce that began March 1 enabled the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan — the main Taliban rebel alliance in Pakistan — time and space to revive its fighting capabilities, but the attack on Karachi's airport illustrates the group's weakness. The Pakistani Taliban have suffered a number of substantial blows to their war-making ability and cohesion. Two weeks ago, a renegade faction led by members of the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan broke off from the core group led by Mullah Fazlullah. In recent years, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan has lost several of its key leaders to U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle strikes, and Pakistani military offensives have taken away significant operating space.
Still, North Waziristan is a sanctuary, one that Islamabad has finally begun to aggressively target in the past few months. The Pakistani Taliban rebels also enjoy strategic depth extending across the Afghan side of the Durand Line. Most significantly, the militants have embedded themselves in the large swathes of ungoverned space that stretch across rural and urban Pakistan.
Why Hit Karachi?
Insurgents have carried out two similar attacks on military air facilities in recent years. In May 2011, militants attacked the Mehran naval aviation base in Karachi, while an attack in August 2012 occurred 55 kilometers (35 miles) northwest of Islamabad in Kamra at the Pakistani military's aeronautical complex, the Minhas air base. On both occasions it took security forces many hours — 17 at Mehran — to subdue the attackers, who succeeded in destroying a number of aircraft. In sharp contrast, the airport attackers did not damage any aircraft and were dispatched in about five hours — and Karachi's civilian airport is a far softer target than the Mehran and Minhas bases.
Pakistani security forces may have improved their performance, or the militant team may have lacked trained operatives — perhaps both are true. Aside from the 2012 attack on the naval aviation base, the Taliban rebels have not shown a significant ability to strike in Karachi — their power projection from their headquarters in the northwestern tribal belt has been largely limited to the province of Punjab. The Taliban have avoided consistent attacks against Pakistan's economic hub in the past, in large part because the rebels source a great amount of funding from the city. In recent years, however, the Taliban have made inroads into Karachi-based organized crime syndicates and have increased their involvement in the extortion racket that used to be the exclusive purview of traditional criminal elements and local political forces.
The organized crime networks in the city are large, complex and diffuse enough that the Taliban feel they are unlikely to face any disruptions from the government to their financial networks. This would explain their new focus on the city even though their main urban targets are in Punjab. Such attacks are also useful in that they force the Pakistani government to increase the number of troops used to protect infrastructure in places such as Karachi, and now at the airports in Lahore and Islamabad, drawing resources away from the core offensive in North Waziristan and its environs.
The Taliban attacks on Jinnah International Airport carried two strategic aims. As with all such attacks, the Taliban knew that their operatives would eventually be overwhelmed by security personnel. Their goal was to create a major media splash and capture airtime for as long as possible. What this does is help shape the perceptions of the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has hesitated to use the army in a major military offensive against the jihadist insurgents.
The Attacks as a Message
Sharif himself is said to have raised concerns about a Taliban response in the country's core areas when the generals first presented their plans for military action. The attacks on the airport are a way for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan to send a message to the government — a warning to Islamabad of what could happen in Pakistan's major cities should the government pull the trigger on the counter-jihadist operation. The spokesman for the Taliban coalition told media that the attack was an example of the rebel group's capabilities and warned that more such attacks were in the pipeline.
Striking the Karachi airport also gave the insurgent group an opportunity to hit the government where it hurts the most. Sharif's pledges to lift Pakistan's economy
have centered on reducing power shortages. For this effort, he needs to draw foreign investment into the country, which is already hard enough. Toward this end, the government has been working on a plan to clear organized crime and militancy out of Karachi — the symbolic gateway into the country. But organized crime is stubbornly entrenched in the city, so the focus is to roll back Taliban influence in the criminal syndicates.
On a broader level, therefore, the attacks on the airport are designed to reinforce the perception that Pakistan is a country to avoid
— showing that its economic hub is deeply vulnerable to Taliban activity — and thus scare off potential investors. However, the attacks do not only undermine the prime minister's economic agenda. They also give Pakistan's military, which has been pressing to go in against the insurgents with greater force, the upper hand in the policy debate. After the Karachi airport attacks, any justification for continuing to pursue talks has all but evaporated. This undermines the Taliban effort to exploit the ongoing narrative — popular among Pakistan's powerful right-wing political forces — that talks are the only way to deal with the insurgents.
Another Cycle of Violence Approaches
Therefore, the Taliban's effort to intimidate Islamabad has backfired, and the country is headed toward another major period of insurgency and counter-insurgency. This cycle will probably be more severe than what was seen in 2009, when Islamabad mounted a major offensive in the greater Swat region and South Waziristan. The key to government success is an intelligence-driven security operation that ranges across the country but focuses in particular on the core command and control structure in North Waziristan and in the other agencies in the tribal belt.
An offensive in North Waziristan will push the Taliban rebels across the border into Afghanistan, where they already enjoy sanctuaries and where the withdrawal of foreign forces is going to provide them with strategic depth. Pakistani forces will thus be engaged in air and ground operations on Afghan soil — or at the very least, they will continue artillery barrages over the border. Pakistani troops have already been shelling areas in Afghanistan's northeastern Kunar province, where Fazlullah, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan core's leader, is headquartered, and from which large groups of Taliban militants cross the border and strike at Pakistani military outposts.
In recent weeks, the Afghan government has spoken out sharply against cross-border operations on its soil. Outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai spoke to Sharif to protest the matter, demanding an end to Pakistani military activity on Kabul's side of the Durand Line.
Islamabad does not want to act on Afghan soil; its interest is to have Kabul negotiate with the Afghan Taliban movement. Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban will be trying to take advantage of the security vacuum created by departing NATO forces. Effectively, Pakistan's own counter-jihadist strategy will conflict with that of Afghanistan, and vice versa. The border region will likely see Taliban emirates emerge, and these will fight against Islamabad, Kabul and each other.
Being uprooted from North Waziristan will prove costly for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, but it can still rely on sanctuaries in eastern Afghanistan, where the authority of the Afghan state will be weaker as we move into the post-NATO period
. Furthermore, so long as Islamabad does not improve its intelligence capabilities on the jihadist networks, military operations will not prevent the Taliban rebels' penetration of state and society.