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The oldest question: who benefits?

A view from Pakistan on the questions swirling around the attack on PNS Mehran.

Written by Ejaz Haider |
May 25, 2011 3:14:30 am

Pakistan Naval Station Mehran saw one of the worst terror attacks in Pakistan’s history Sunday night when a group of terrorists,armed with RPGs,AK-47s,light machine-guns and hand grenades breached the security of the base and managed to target and destroy two P-3C Orion planes,each worth $36 million,upgrade costs excluded.

The planes were a dedicated target. While one has been fully destroyed,there are conflicting reports on the damage sustained by the second.

Four P-3Cs were based at PNS Mehran,which also uses the facilities of the Pakistan air force’s Faisal airbase. The aircraft is a multi-role,long-endurance machine,carrying a variety of integrated sensors and anti-surface and subsurface weapons. It is nicknamed “Airborne Destroyer”.

The attack also killed 11 navy personnel,including three civilian employees and two Rangers personnel. It took security forces over 16 hours to take control of the base. Questions abound.

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Was the attack facilitated by a security lapse or was security breached? Why target the Orions? The Pakistan navy has come under attack recently; what became of the inquiries into three attacks on navy buses? Was there any intelligence on the possibility of such a strike? If not,why not? If the group of attackers crossed the nullah that flows by one side of the base,was that approach secured? How were the attackers so familiar with the terrain and layout of the base? Could there be insider-outsider collusion; or did the planners of the attack reconnoitre the area,complementing ground recce with satellite imagery from Google Earth?

The Orion,the target,is primarily a force-multiplier against the Indian Navy and while upgrades of sensors and weapons through the Anti-Surface Warfare Improvement Programme can make it useful for sustained combat air support over land — case in point their use in Afghanistan by the Royal Australian Air Force — and also for geological surveys overland,these machines were not capable of those roles.

Why would the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan choose to target the P-3Cs? Unlike in Balochistan,where there is direct evidence of India’s involvement with Baloch sub-nationalists,there is no clear evidence that India is also,directly or indirectly,supporting the TTP,but circumstantial evidence is mounting. The charge means nothing unless a clear signature is identified which is extremely difficult. But the sentiment will grow and make normalisation of Pakistan-India ties that much more difficult. It will also impact the endgame in Afghanistan.

The killing of the attackers is no success. Although they might have had an extrication plan,they had IED belts tied to them which shows they were prepared to die rather than be captured. But they achieved what they had set out to do — they inflicted the loss of planes and men; created a spectacle; and,most of all,made everyone question,yet again,the ability of the military to secure itself against brazen attacks.

This fits in with another narrative,and that seems to be a motive bigger than destroying the P-3Cs: if bases and high-value assets are not secure,is there a guarantee that an attack like this cannot be mounted on Pakistan’s nuclear assets,and successfully? That question is already reverberating through security circles. Add to this the possibility of insider-outsider collusion that can make possible the breach of even high security and the narrative sticks out like a wart on a bald head.

Who gets to benefit from this narrative? One is India,the other,Pakistan’s ostensible ally,the United States. It helps of course to point out that neither — if it is accepted that either one or both are interested in making this stick through concrete action(s) — is employing an outside force to this end. In such a scenario,one or the other or both are using the fault-lines present within Pakistan’s body politic. They are your men,the outside world will say. And,technically,the world would be right. But when states are locked in a conflictual paradigm,it helps to exploit the faultlines of one another. Hobbes continues to upstage Locke. That is the history of mankind from the Melian Dialogue on.

Pakistan’s job is therefore cut out for it. It has to develop a better-coordinated counter-terrorism strategy; improve intelligence; revamp its forces; develop speedier response mechanisms and prepare a list of all those places that have been,can and will be targeted. This requires getting into the mind of the adversary. It is not enough to say that the forces finished off the terrorists. If they cannot be denied their mission,then they have won even as the group gets killed. This is the operational side.

On the political side,the state has to dominate the narrative which it has failed to do so far. Karachi should help clarify doubts in people’s minds. That is the harder part. It is moot to ask if Pakistan is prepared for that.

The writer is a contributing editor with ‘The Friday Times’,Lahore. The views are his own

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