AS speculation about a possible army operation in North Waziristan gathers momentum, spare a thought for those who will have to make this fateful decision and for those who will have to implement it.
For years, our army has been embroiled in an escalating conflict of mounting ferocity. Since those attacking the state and ordinary Pakistanis are from within our society, they are harder to fight than a uniformed foreign force.
What must make it worse is the realisation that this invisible foe is, to a great extent, a creature of the establishment’s own making. Many of the groups that are targeting our security forces are offshoots of militant organisations earlier created and cosseted by our military intelligence agencies. How many are still aided and abetted by them is unclear.
But what is clear is that these groups have the capacity to hit military targets at will. Time after time, they have demonstrated sophisticated planning and disciplined execution in their attacks on well-guarded bases. Police centres and civilian intelligence agencies have been similarly targeted.
At the Mehran naval base, militants infiltrated a supposedly secure area, destroyed expensive, brand-new surveillance aircraft, and held off the defenders for well over 12 hours. In the recent daring raid on the Minhas airbase, terrorists were able to penetrate the perimeter and fight off military troops for five hours after damaging one jet fighter.
While there have been numerous other attacks on military targets across the country resulting in hundreds of casualties, perhaps the most devastating one was on the army’s holy of holies, its headquarters in Rawalpindi. This was an imaginative, almost flawless attack involving militants in army uniforms driving vehicles with army number plates and armed with a detailed knowledge of security procedures.
But these attacks, damaging as they were, pale into insignificance when compared with the American raid in Abbottabad that rid the world of Osama bin Laden. Although no security forces lost their lives in that operation, the humiliation was immense. The spike in anti-Americanism can be traced directly to that fateful, moonless night in May.
The fury and frustration it provoked among our officer corps lingers on. The Pakistani public, for the first time since 1971, lost faith in the professionalism of our vaunted army that, suddenly and unexpectedly, found itself on the defensive.
The common thread running through all these events is an overarching failure of military intelligence. Repeatedly, our armed forces have had to react, often inadequately, to attacks without any warning. Even when there was information that should have put our security forces on high alert, red tape and complacency obscured the telltale signs. Zahid Hussain, the well-informed journalist and author of The Scorpion’s Tail, writes that a warning about the attack on GHQ was passed on to the army but was ignored.
One huge disadvantage our military establishment is struggling against is the presence of Taliban sympathisers within its ranks. In virtually every attack on military bases, militants have demonstrated detailed inside knowledge that could only have come from serving officers and jawans.
Those who have tried to reveal this nexus have not fared well. Salim Shahzad, the murdered journalist, had published one part of his exposé about the infiltration of the navy by Islamic militants, and was kidnapped and killed before he could write the sequel. In a letter he wrote before his death, he said that if anything happened to him the ISI would be to blame.
The intelligence agency vehemently denied the charge and said it would investigate the murder. We have yet to learn the result of this inquiry. Daniel Pearl, the slain American journalist, was tracking a story linking Richard Reid, the ‘shoe bomber’, with Pakistani intelligence before he was kidnapped and killed.
Another handicap our military establishment is suffering from is cultural. As jihadi groups claim to be acting in the name of Islam, many Pakistanis within and outside the armed forces find it difficult to perceive them as enemies, no matter how many soldiers and civilians they slaughter. Gen Kayani’s recent unequivocal pronouncement on this being Pakistan’s war, and describing militants as our foes, should be seen in this context.
Then there is the problem of identifying militants disguised in burkas. In many cases, they have been able to approach police and army check posts without being challenged and trigger their suicide belts. Children have been frequently brainwashed into becoming suicide bombers by cynical terrorists. They fool guards with their youth and approach barriers unchecked.
During the Cold War, Western and Soviet intelligence agencies constantly tried to infiltrate each other. Counter-intelligence organisations were engaged in a covert battle to smoke out moles. John le Carré’s brilliant novels featuring the self-effacing Smiley capture this cat-and-mouse game in all its grim, gritty overtones.
In Pakistan’s ongoing struggle, the militants are winning this undercover war. Given the sympathy and support they apparently enjoy among sections of our armed forces and intelligence agencies, this should come as no surprise. There is also the additional problem of keeping tabs on officers retiring from the military, the ISI and MI.
Some of them allegedly keep in touch with serving ex-colleagues and pass on information to militants.
As most militant groups are based in remote rural areas, outsiders are immediately detected, making it more difficult to infiltrate them. Hiring locals to spy on them is a hazardous occupation: over the years, hundreds have been summarily and brutally executed on the charge of spying either for the Americans or for Pakistani intelligence.
Naive people like Imran Khan and many of our TV anchors labour under the delusion that all will be well after Nato forces pull out from Afghanistan and we are no longer engaged in ‘fighting America’s war’. If only life were that simple. The more probable outcome of the pullout in 2014 is that the Afghan Taliban will come to the aid of their Pakistani cousins in the latter’s war against the state.
Hopefully, Pakistanis will then become aware that this is indeed our war, as Gen Kayani said in his Independence Day speech. Unless we unite to combat the evil we face, it will haunt us for years to come.
The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.