By Ben West
The Pakistani Taliban continue to undermine Pakistan's government and military establishment, and in doing so, they continue to raise questions over the security of the country's nuclear arsenal. On Dec. 15, 10 militants armed with suicide vests and grenades attacked Peshawar Air Force Base, the site of a third major operation by the Pakistani Taliban since May 2011. Tactically, the attack was relatively unsuccessful — all the militants were killed, and the perimeter of the air base was not breached — but the Pakistani Taliban nonetheless achieved their objective.
The attack began the night of Dec. 15 with a volley of three to five mortar shells. As the shells were fired, militants detonated a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device near the perimeter wall of the air base. Reports indicate that all five militants inside the vehicle were killed. The other five militants engaged security forces in a nearby residential area and eventually were driven back before they could enter the air base. The next day, security forces acting on a report of suspicious activity confronted the militants, who all died in the resultant shootout.
Pakistani security forces came away from the incident looking very good. They prevented a large and seemingly coordinated team of militants from entering the confines of the base and thus from damaging civilian and military aircraft. Some of Pakistan's newly acquired Chinese-Pakistani made JF-17s, are stationed at the air base, and worth roughly $20 million each, they were probably the militants ultimate targets.
Another reason the militants may have chosen the base is its location. Peshawar Air Force Base is the closest base to the northwest tribal areas of Pakistan, where Pakistani and U.S. forces are clashing with Taliban militants who threaten Islamabad and Kabul. The air base is most likely a hub for Pakistan's air operations against those militants. The Dec. 15 attack killed one police officer and a few other civilians, but it did no damage to the air base, the adjacent civilian airport or their respective aircraft. Flights were postponed for only a couple of hours as security forces cleared the area.
Tactics and Previous Attacks
Major military bases in Pakistan have been attacked before. In May 2011, Pakistani Taliban militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and firearms destroyed two P-3C maritime surveillance aircraft and killed 10 soldiers during an attack on Mehran Naval Air Base in Karachi. The militants entered the base by cutting through the fence.
More recently, seven Pakistani Taliban militants scaled the walls of Minhas Air Force Base in Kamra before killing a soldier and damaging a Ukrainian transport aircraft. They were pushed back before they could damage the squadron of F-16 fighter aircraft stationed at the base.
The Dec. 15 attack was not nearly as destructive as these other attacks, probably because half the militants were killed immediately in the explosion at the perimeter. Their deaths suggest the device detonated earlier than expected or that they were not far enough from the device when it exploded. It is unclear why they died, but the device could have detonated prematurely for several reasons. There could have been a glitch in the construction or detonation of the device. Otherwise, it could have been the result of the security forces' countermeasures (something officials have not yet claimed). Had the militants survived the explosion and breached the perimeter, they might have been more successful against security.
The Dec. 15 attack also differs from the previous two attacks tactically. Whereas militants stealthily entered the bases in Kamra and Karachi, the militants who attacked the base in Peshawar used mortars and explosives because the wall — roughly eight feet high and topped with barbed wire — could not be cut or climbed easily. These tactics are much more aggressive than the two previous air base attacks, and therefore they immediately caught the attention of security forces. Indeed, security forces in the vicinity would have heard mortar shells and explosions. But just as important, mortar shells and explosions create flames that security forces can use to pinpoint the attack and respond quickly.
It is hard to say whether the combination and coordination of mortar fire, explosives and a direct ground assault with firearms would have resulted in a successful attack even if half the militants had not died in the initial explosion. They certainly would have been greatly outnumbered. The few mortar shells fired at the base may have suppressed forces momentarily, but the militants did not sustain their indirect cover fire, which eventually allowed security forces more mobility in responding. In any case, breaching the wall with an explosion sacrifices the element of surprise too early — outside the base rather than inside — reducing the amount of time the assailants have to find their targets before security could respond.
A final reason the attack failed may have been the fact that the threat was known about weeks earlier. In late November, authorities apprehended a would-be suicide bomber and his handler entering Peshawar on a motorcycle. The suspect later confessed that they were targeting the airport. Peshawar airport was already on high alert after the attack on the Kamra base in August. The November arrests heightened security, which lessened the militants' chance of surprise. Moreover, the arrests were made publicly available in open-source materials, so the militants should have known that security forces were on high alert.
As for the security forces, the protective intelligence available was obvious, and the attack came when they were most prepared to repel it. Yet they benefited greatly when the explosion did half their work for them. It appears that they just got lucky.
The Dec. 15 attack appears to have been carried out by militants who intended to replicate the damage caused by their comrades' attacks in Karachi and Kamra. Tactically, they failed.
But that does not mean the operation wasn't valuable. Like previous attacks on Pakistani military installations, the Peshawar attack grabs headlines because of its high profile. Put simply, the sensitivity of the target demands media attention.
As in the Karachi and Kamra attacks, the Dec. 15 attack involves the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. There are no indications that there are nuclear weapons stored at the Peshawar base, and there is no evidence that the nuclear weapons that may have been stored at the Karachi and Kamra bases were compromised. But the attack nonetheless raises questions about the security of Pakistan's military installations and by extension their nuclear arsenal. For the United States and India, such attacks compel lawmakers to revisit debates over whether the United States should intervene to protect the weapons.
These headlines and discussions benefit the Pakistani Taliban because they call into question Islamabad's ability to rule. Meanwhile, the Pakistani Taliban will continue to try to destabilize the military, one of the strongest pillars of the state, and provoke fear of external involvement from the United States.
In fact, the Pakistani Taliban would benefit from U.S. involvement, which would create huge public backlash and chaotic conditions in which the militants could thrive. The Pakistani Taliban do not necessarily need to destroy aircraft or kill military personnel to raise these doubts in Pakistan and the wider world. From the perspective of the insurgents, all the coordination and firepower they brought to the attack was a strategic success if this attack nurtures that doubt, even if it wasn't as tactically successful as previous attacks.