Monday's brazen terrorist attack at Karachi's airport by the Pakistani Taliban, also known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), is confirmation, if any were needed, that the security situation in Pakistan is dire. But even more worrisome is that the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif doesn't seem to know what to do about it.
The latest attack, which lasted some six hours, left at least 38 dead, including 10 terrorists. Reportedly, the militants were Uzbeks, which confirms that the TTP has been able to recruit non-Pakistanis to its cause. This should ring alarm bells in Islamabad.
This strike against Pakistan's largest airport is a major blow to the Government. The perception will be that it is unable to protect the country's major assets, even though an attack against Karachi airport had been expected — the Interior Ministry had issued two alerts of such a possibility since November 2013.
Unfortunately, we can expect many more of these attacks. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has effectively admitted as much by stating that 'we need to face and acknowledge the facts: the country is in a war-like situation, and we are in a conflict zone'. A TTP spokesman also announced that it would continue its activities until its goals were reached.
The military has already retaliated with air strikes against TTP hide-outs in the remote Tirah Valley in the northwest of the country. Reportedly 15 militants were killed in the strikes. The TTP retailated in turn, attacking a Karachi Airport Security Force base next to the airport yesterday. The airport was shut down for the second time in as many days but normal operations resumed within two hours. There were no injuries.
So what happens now?
This audacious attack on Karachi airport confirms that the Pakistani Taliban, or at least important sections of it, is in no mood to pursue negotiations with Nawaz Sharif's government. In any case, those talks, which had been proceeding intermittently at best since February, were not going anywhere. They merely gave the terrorists time to prepare for their next attack.
Prime Minister Sharif, who had promised during last year's election campaign to try to end the terrorist scourge by talking to the TTP, is now left with only one obvious option: military action.
Accordingly, many in Pakistan are wondering whether the Prime Minister will finally give the go-ahead for a long-awaited, sweeping military operation against the TTP and other terrorist groups (including the Haqqani Network) in North Waziristan, which the Americans have been seeking for years. Or will he limit the military option to strikes against specific targets?
While the Chief of Army Staff, Gen Raheel Sharif (no relation to the Prime Minister), and his military colleagues are keen to hunt down the TTP and its ideological fellow travellers in the tribal areas, Prime Minister Sharif is worried that significant military strikes would lead to waves of terrorist attacks against civilian targets in the urban centres of the Punjab.
The Punjab is the country's heartland and Prime Minister Sharif's political base. Although Sharif promised to improve the basic needs of the majority with guaranteed energy supply, better water access and improved public transport and housing, he has little to show for his promises. If the TTP executes several terrorist acts which cause high civilian casualties, Sharif's popularity, already low, could quickly drop further. And as the airport attack again shows, the TTP can strike with impunity pretty much anytime, anywhere in Pakistan.
Regardless of which military option Prime Minister Sharif opts for, the TTP's fighters will probably escape across the border into Afghanistan where many of their colleagues are hiding, including leader Maulana Fazlullah. It will only be a matter of time before they seep back into Pakistan to strike again.
Complicating the picture is the fact that, while the TTP's home base is northwest Pakistan, there are many militant cells throughout the country, particularly in the southern Punjab where government writ no longer applies in large areas. Karachi is host to an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 TTP militants.
The terrorist threat has become so enormous that many political leaders, including Prime Minister Sharif's national security adviser, consider it an existential threat to Pakistan. Having already lost some 40,000 civilians to terrorist acts, Pakistanis have sound reasons to be deeply worried about the future.
Unfortunately, the Government does not appear to have a strategy to deal with this colossal problem. Moreover, the military and the civilian government seem not to agree on the best approach. Already civil-military relations are poor for a number of unrelated reasons, so differences on this issue will simply complicate the relationship further. Needless to say, the Pakistani Taliban will exploit these differences to its advantage.
The TTP has recently fractured and gone through violent inter-factional clashes which many believed would weaken its capacity to fight. Yet the TTP's resolve to abolish the constitution and impose sharia law throughout the land has not weakened, and it is making serious headway towards that objective. Nawaz Sharif cannot continue to dither.