Airport Bloodshed Shows Wide Split on Pakistan’s Future
The Pakistani Taliban’s attack on the country’s biggest airport that killed 36 people risks claiming another casualty: Peace negotiations between the militant group and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Direct talks have stalled since Sharif agreed to them for the first time in March after pressure built to order an offensive into the Taliban stronghold of North Waziristan near the Afghan border. Finding common ground is next to impossible, according to Mahmud Ali Durrani, a former national security chief and ex-Pakistani ambassador to the U.S.
“Our agendas are totally different,” Durrani, a retired major general in Pakistan’s army, said by phone. “The Taliban want to spread their brand of Islam and they don’t compromise on that. The government is talking of constitution, law, democracy. There is no meeting ground.”
The breakdown in talks and uptick in attacks raises questions about Sharif’s strategy and threatens to disrupt his plans to attract investors to buy stakes in state-run companies as part of an International Monetary Fund road map to revive the economy. The late-night attack that began June 8 and a smaller outbreak of gunfire at the airport today have added to security concerns that have kept growth subdued.
“Just when investor confidence for Pakistan was increasing, this is a major setback,” Muzzammil Aslam, managing director at Emerging Economics Research in Karachi, said by phone. “The possibility for dialogue with the Taliban can now be ruled out. The government and army were not on the same page, but I guess now things will change.”
Karachi airport resumed operations today after suspending flights for about an hour as militants fired guns at a residential compound near the airport that is used by security staff. Nobody was hurt and the two attackers escaped, Tahir Ali, a spokesman of the airport security force, said by phone.
The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, known as the TTP, had threatened more attacks yesterday while saying it was still ready for “serious talks” with the government. The group, at the forefront of an insurgency that has killed 50,000 people since 2001, has demanded Sharif release prisoners before allowing talks to progress on issues such as implementing its version of Islamic Shariah law.
“Talks are dead,” said Shahzad Chaudhry, a former Pakistan Air Force official. “Both sides will continue to attack each other.”
The Jinnah International Airport, which handles all routine domestic and international flights from Karachi, reopened yesterday after security forces killed 10 Taliban fighters who carried out a late-night attack on an aircraft maintenance facility about two kilometers (1.2 miles) from the main terminal building.
Flames and smoke billowed above the terminal in the attack, which left 26 security personnel and workers at the airport dead, including seven who whose bodies were recovered today from a cold storage unit. No passengers were injured.
The attackers were armed with rocket launchers and planned to take hostages to use as human shields, Nisar Ali Khan, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, told reporters at the airport yesterday. It took three hours to kill the militants, who also brought food and medicine, he said.
“If we are attacked then there will be a complete and full response,” Khan said. “But there is a way to it and it will be in front of you. You need patience and tolerance. This will require to unify and mobilize the entire Pakistani nation.”
Early morning air strikes killed 15 militants in the Tirah valley near the border with Afghanistan, according to a text message today by the military spokesman’s office.
The TTP, which called off a self-declared cease-fire on April 26, said the attack was retaliation for military strikes in Waziristan and the death of Hakimullah Mehsud, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike last year. The group accused the government of preparing for war in North Waziristan at the behest of the U.S., which is planning to withdraw almost all of its troops from neighboring Afghanistan by the end of 2016.
“Now the government should get ready for more,” Shahidullah Shahid, a Taliban spokesman, said by phone yesterday. Three Pakistani troops were killed yesterday in a separate attack on a checkpoint in North Waziristan.
Pakistan has conducted attacks on militants over the past month in Waziristan, where foreign fighters including Uzbeks have gathered after U.S. troops ousted Afghanistan’s Taliban regime in 2001. The attackers appeared to be from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Shujaat Azeem, Sharif’s adviser on aviation, told reporters in Karachi yesterday.
The dominant faction of the Mehsud group, which controlled the TTP until Hakimullah Mehsud’s death, on May 28 announced it would disassociate itself from the TTP.
“The subsequent and ongoing battle for supremacy between the two factions will prove to be deadly for Pakistan’s security,” Sameer Patil, associate national security fellow at Mumbai-based research group Gateway House, said in a statement. “We can expect more attacks of this nature.”
Karachi is Pakistan’s economic hub and generates about half the tax revenue of South Asia’s second-biggest economy. The port and financial center is a transit point for everything from U.S. military equipment to Afghan opium, and has recently seen Taliban fighters taking control of parts of the city.
Pakistan’s benchmark KSE-100 Index (KSE100) fell 0.1 percent as of 12:49 p.m. in Karachi, while the rupee -- among the world’s best performers this year -- was little changed. Pakistan has incurred $102.5 billion in costs due to incidents of terrorism in the past 13 years, according to a finance ministry report this month.
The government plans to sell stakes in Habib Bank Ltd., United Bank Ltd. and Allied Bank Ltd. to help reduce its fiscal deficit to a seven-year low in the year starting July 1, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar said last week. Pakistan seeks to boost growth to an eight-year high of 5.1 percent in the coming fiscal year from an estimated 4.1 percent.
The airport attack undermines any talks and gives the government public support for an offensive against the Taliban in Waziristan, according to Michael Kugelman, senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington policy group. Any talks are “destined to fail” because of the Taliban demands for a strict interpretation of Shariah law across Pakistan, he said.
“They have such divergent startling differences of how life should be, there is no way they could reconcile each other’s views,” Kugelman said, referring to Sharif’s administration and the TTP. “They just do not see eye to eye.”
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