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Karachi airport attack draws attention to Pakistan's untouchable militancy

Relatives and colleagues of Airport Security Force (ASF) soldiers killed in Sunday’s Taliban attack on Jinnah International Airport, gather to offer funeral prayers at ASF headquarters in Karachi on Monday. Taliban militants disguised as security forces stormed Pakistan's busiest airport on June 8, 2014 and at least 27 people were killed in a night-long battle at one of the country's most high-profile targets.


The plumes of smoke had died down by Monday afternoon after an audacious assault on Karachi's international airport, but the questions lingered. How did men armed with suicide vests and grenades make their way into the country's busiest airport? Would the government respond to the Pakistani Taliban's aggressive attack? And what does the new spasm of violence portend for Pakistan's future stability?

There are no clear answers yet. But Pakistan's inability to deal with terrorism has long been a source of contention, especially with the United States, which has accused Pakistan of harbouring militant groups that have attacked foreign troops in neighbouring Afghanistan. And the optics – a major airport attacked, foreign airlines affected – are bound to hurt the Pakistani government. "The government seems to be so helpless," said Talat Masood, a former army general. "The real problem is the lack of decisiveness."

The hours-long attack on Sunday night left at least 25 people dead, including the 10 attackers, as security forces battled militants holed up in the cargo terminal. The country was transfixed as television channels showed smoke billowing from Jinnah International Airport and bodies being wheeled into a hospital morgue. Army and paramilitary troops were called in, the airport sealed and passengers were taken off grounded planes. By Monday morning, the siege was declared over. The airport resumed service in the afternoon.

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The government condemned the attack, and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan arrived in Karachi on Monday to be briefed by security officials. But it's unlikely it will be a turning point in Pakistan's long war against militancy.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose party was elected into parliament last year with an overwhelming majority, has pushed for a peace deal with the myriad militant groups that operate out of Pakistan's tribal areas. Negotiations were fraught and complicated, and infighting between the Pakistani Taliban, as well as drone strikes by the U.S., made the contentious process more difficult. While political parties across the spectrum backed opening negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban, Mr. Sharif's government has been criticized for not acting against militant groups that haven't let up on a campaign of bombings.

In the year since Mr. Sharif came to power, groups associated with the Pakistani Taliban – an umbrella network of several militant factions – have attacked journalists, soldiers and civilians, including worshippers at a church in Peshawar and one of the country's most prominent talk show hosts, Hamid Mir, who survived an assassination attempt on him in Karachi.

As the death tolls climbed, the military responded to attacks on its troops by launching an offensive against militant groups in the tribal areas.

The blowback was felt on Sunday in Karachi. The Pakistani Taliban claimed that the attack was revenge for the military campaign. "The main goal of this attack was to damage the government, including by hijacking planes and destroying state installations," Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the group, told Reuters.

The head of the Rangers paramilitary troops claimed that the attackers that besieged the airport appeared to be of Uzbek origin. Uzbek militants – who have been based out of Pakistan's tribal areas – were among the targets of the military's campaign.

Cyril Almeida, a columnist and associate editor at Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, said the attack underscored the challenges with the military's strategy, or lack thereof, because despite the bombing campaign the suspected Uzbek militants were able to launch an attack in Karachi. It could also indicate that, as in the past, militant factions have been able to regroup and base themselves out of different cities. Karachi – a city plagued with crime, political instability and poor governance – has long been a home for militant groups, including the Pakistani Taliban and the anti-Shi'ite Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

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"It's a messy, temporary, Band-Aid solution," Mr. Almeida said of the current strategy against militants. "The goal of the military operation is not meant to eradicate militancy, and the peace deal isn't meant to end violence. The government's strategy is to ensure that violence inside Pakistan proper is manageable and doesn't cross a certain threshold."

This analysis is underscored by the fact that the government has also successfully staved off attacks in the Punjab province, the base of support for Mr. Sharif and his party. There are no easy, cut-and-dried solutions to a problem that has been festering in Pakistan for over a decade. In any case the results will be bloody: peace deals have been struck before – and broken – and negotiations have yet to culminate in a long-lasting ceasefire by militant groups.

The attack comes as the Sharif administration is beset with a number of challenges: a long-simmering insurgency in the Balochistan province, an economy struggling to get off the ground, the spread of the polio virus in the country and opposition from its main political rival, the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan's Movement for Justice (Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf) party. Added to that is a conflict between the military and Pakistan's most prominent television network, Geo TV, which implicated the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency in the attack on Mr. Mir, the television host.

The government may be preoccupied by the attack on Karachi's airport for a few days, but it will inevitably move on to other domestic concerns. By Monday evening, Pakistani television networks had refocused their attention to the plight of workers who were still stranded in a cold storage unit at the airport. Previous attacks, including one on a naval base in Karachi in 2011, have often yielded similar questions about security lapses and the government's writ, but the underlying nexus of militancy remains untouchable.

Who are the Pakistani Taliban?

In December, 2007, some 13 disparate militant groups coalesced under the umbrella of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban. The initial leader was Baitullah Mehsud of South Waziristan, accused by Pakistani authorities of orchestrating the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

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The TTP managed to regroup and gain territory during short-lived ceasefires, and later claimed its mission was to overthrow the "un-Islamic" Pakistan government. U.S. drone strikes killed Taliban leaders in 2009 and 2013, shocks that brought to power Mullah Fazlullah, the extremist who ordered the attack that was aimed at killing Pakistani schoolgirl and activist Malala Yousafzai. Taliban attacks have hit security forces and civilians, with intellectuals, ordinary voters and doctors especially targeted. Some of the more spectacular attacks, before the Karachi airport, were the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad that left 60 people dead and a 16-hour assault on a naval airbase that killed several people and destroyed two military aircraft.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government opened talks with Taliban representatives earlier this year. Last month, the Mehsud tribe broke away from the TTP, splintering the group and raising doubts about the usefulness of negotiations but not about the Taliban's deadly capability. - Sources include wire services and the Council on Foreign Relations

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