August Issue 2011
Military Facilities in Urban Areas Remain Under Threat of Attack
By Muhammad Azam | News & Politics | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 12 years ago
Forty years ago, the Pakistan Navy learnt some important lessons. And they are lessons that it has not forgotten to this day. During the 1971 conflict, grossly insufficient support for the operations in the North Arabian Sea and an overarching priority to land battles by the PAF cost the navy. Specifically, an absence of integral surveillance capability and air support had a telling impact on the war in the western sea theatre. On more than one occasion, Indian Navy missile boats had a field day attacking Karachi harbour with impunity and later making it back to their home ports in complete safety. Had it not been for Pakistan Navy submarine Hangor that sank the Indian Navy frigate, Khukri on December 9, thereby pushing the Indian western fleet on the defensive, Karachi harbour may have received more missile hits.
Now, 40 years later, the Pakistan Navy (PN) has received another deadly blow. On May 22, militant extremists stormed PNS Mehran in Karachi, killed and injured several military officers, destroyed millions of dollars of high-tech equipment and embarrassed Pakistan’s armed forces. So what are the lessons that the navy, the armed forces and the nation, can take away from this recent national tragedy?
To answer that, let’s first understand the evolution of Pakistan’s navy forces. The development of air capabilities for the PN has been a long journey fraught with turbulence. The sanction for the purchase of a LRMP (Long-Range Maritime Patrol) aircraft had actually been issued by the government as early as 1964. However this authorisation was accorded to the PAF rather than the PN. In the wake of the war, the navy initiated a process to set up its own aviation wing. A modest beginning was made at PNS Mehran, with the support of the PAF, when French Atlantique (LRMP) was acquired from the naval budget. The bulk of manpower was deputed from the air force with the PN represented only by a handful of personnel. PAF Faisal, adjacent to the navy’s Mehran base, extended operational and administrative facilities to the fledgling arm of the navy. Over the past three decades, naval aviation has expanded and now includes large surveillance platforms, such as the P-3C Orions.
But it has been proved that the location of many bases, such as PNS Mehran, are now liabilities. For many diverse reasons, many operational bases and even sensitive facilities cannot be relocated even as urban centres become overcrowded and bustle with commercial activity. PAF Base Sargodha, Wah, HMC, Kamra complex, etc., despite their strategic value and having experienced major terror attacks in the past, are all likely to remain in their current locations. Likewise, the PN dockyard and KSEW (Karachi Shipyard and Engg Works), which have multiple ongoing projects, including the construction of warships and submarines, are not likely to see a repositioning anytime soon.
Presently, because of a largely underdeveloped infrastructure in coastal areas and to ensure operational flexibility, the Pakistan Navy is constrained to keep its assets in diverse geographic locations, including Karachi. Coastal navy bases, however, only support operations of smaller Fokker-sized aircraft. There are no hangars, flight lines or warehouses, and the tarmac can accommodate only a few aircraft. Personnel quarters are barely enough to lodge flight crew and security personnel, while the runway and technical support infrastructure limitations disallow operations of the large-bodied P-3Cs. Major training as well as operational and training missions have to be consequently flown either from Karachi or elsewhere in Pakistan. With the lowest percentage share (roughly 11%) in the defence budget allocated to the navy, development of additional navy bases is not likely in the foreseeable future. The existing site of PNS Mehran thus remains a compulsion for the navy rather than a choice. And large urban bases like PNS Mehran could very well remain targets for militants.
The radicalisation of Pakistani society that began in the 1980s has now developed into a sprawling cactus tree with thorns penetrating deep into the flesh of the nation. Nowhere else in the world is it possible to witness such large and unchecked growth of private armies. A proliferating culture of sipahs, lashkars, and jaish, many masked as charitable groups, and the unbridled kingdom of madrassahs coupled with the proclivity of several political parties to support the proscribed outfits has turned many of the country’s metropolitan centres into cauldrons of violence and intolerance.
Following the December 2003 assassination attempt on the former President Pervez Musharraf, the PAF ended up arresting or dismissing at least 57 personnel from several bases for links with extremist organisations. In a US State department cable dated March 28, 2006, released by WikiLeaks, a senior PAF official admitted to the Americans that he was facing problems with Islamist sympathisers within the PAF. In the November 2008 assassination of Maj. Gen. Faisal Alvi, an accomplished SSG officer, one of the three assassins was a retired army officer (Major Haroon Ashiq) who quit the army in 2001 after Pakistan supported the US led invasion. The officer had been working with Al-Qaeda-affiliated militant groups. In October 2009, terrorists attacked the armed forces GHQ and held 39 officers and civilians hostage for more than 19 hours. The assailants were just a gunshot away from the country’s top military commander who was present in his office at the time. Aqeel alias Dr Usman was the mastermind behind the attack and was a deserter from the army’s medical corps. This demonstrates the extent to which the terrorist organisations have been able to penetrate, influence and recruit the servicemen. According to a retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army, who served as an instructor both at the Command and Staff College as well as the National Defence University, “Radicalisation within military runs as deep as radicalisation within society.”
Pakistan’s participation in the Afghan war following the December 1979 Soviet invasion was a terrible miscalculation. The subsequent use of extremists groups as strategic instruments long after the Red Army’s rout has led to what is now being increasingly termed as “reverse indoctrination.” Having taken a 180-degree turn, the delusive notion is inflicting cuts on the territorial integrity of the country. The bulk of new recruits into the armed forces are from the middle strata of society — a segment most influenced by the prevalent surroundings, as a recent survey conducted jointly by Princeton University, Georgetown University and University of Pennsylvania revealed.
Alongside, urban terrorism is liable to remain a major pre-occupation for Pakistan. In fact, it may increase given the enormous demographic and economic changes taking place, such as ongoing mass rural migration to major cities and galloping poverty. Between 2008 and 2011, the number of Pakistanis living in extreme poverty (making Rs100 or less per day) has gone up from 47 million to 72 million.
Fighting the curse of extremism requires recognition of the real enemy. “Know your enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster,” advocated Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese strategist. That the enemy lies “within” — the sympathisers, the abettors and those brainwashed – makes the fight that much more difficult. So far, terror groups have capitalised on crevices in internal security arrangements, inadequate training, inter-agency distrust and the resultant poor coordination together with misplaced ‘intelligence’ priorities.
International concerns about Pakistan’s strategic assets continue to rise. With the greatest reverence and understanding reserved for those who sacrifice and suffer to shield us from terror, the imperative need for reforms in the armed forces and intelligence agencies can no longer be set aside. Two things have become indisputable necessities: one, remodelling of the intelligence and security set-up with redefined objectives; and two, embarking on the task of purging the rank and file of adherents to extremist ideologies and terrorist sleeper cells, if any.
A full-blown insurgency has been raging since 2002, and yet the nation is without a coherent national security and counter-terrorism strategy. The draft of a new terrorism bill is yet to be tabled in parliament. NACTA (National Counter-Terror Authority), the one set-up that could have made a serious dent in the terror complex, is lying dormant, disallowed from functioning as an independent body. Even when we suggest foreign involvement, our failure to back it up with compelling evidence has been strikingly missing. We must perish the thought that this enemy will recede once the US troop drawdown is well underway. It will endure and may hurt us even more. “Pakistan should understand that anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories will not make their problems disappear,” said Hillary Clinton at the end of her brief visit to Pakistan on May 27. If Pakistan is to avoid global isolation and pariah status, it must genuinely shrink and ultimately prohibit use of its space by non-state actors.