Deciphering the Attack on Pakistan’s Army Headquarters
By Hassan Abbas
Originally published on Foreign Policy, October 11, 2009
Before Pakistan could start recovering from a suicide bombing at a U.N. office in Islamabad and a massive bomb blast in a Peshawar market last week, the brazen October 10 attack targeting Pakistan's most secure military complex -- Army Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi, just a few miles from the capital of Islamabad -- jolted it further. This latest attack dragged on for 18 hours as around 40 officials were held hostage by terrorists in a building that belongs to a very important military department. During initial gun battle, the Army lost a brigadier and a lieutenant colonel. This episode concluded with the arrest of the commander of the operation Aqeel, alias Dr. Usman, and the killing of his some seven associates who wore army fatigues and had coordinated their attack on GHQ from at least two directions.
This was neither the first attack on an army structure in the country nor the most deadly -- but it is unprecedented given the extent of the breach of the GHQ security, the confusion that it created in its initial stage (raising concerns about the safety of army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani), and its timing vis-à-vis the planned launch of a ground military operation in South Waziristan. It could be a transformational event for the army -- cementing its resolve against local militants, bridging internal divisions and forcing a review of its intelligence estimates. However, jumping to conclusions without a thorough investigation and reacting rashly based on preconceived notions would be highly counterproductive. Additionally, though Pakistan's nuclear installations are not in the immediate vicinity of GHQ, the nature of the attack raises questions about how security agencies would react if a future attack targets any of the nuclear weapons facilities.
Before attempting to analyze the attack further, let's look at the facts that have come to light so far. The Crime Investigation Department of Punjab -- a civilian law enforcement body -- recently shared its assessment with relevant government departments maintaining that "terrorists belonging to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in collaboration with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), were planning to attack GHQ in Rawalpindi." It even warned that terrorists clad in military uniforms were planning to attack GHQ while riding in military vehicles. Pakistan's leading newspaper group -- the Jang group of publishers -- both in its English and Urdu publications disclosed this on October 5. This information was partly based on interrogations of suspects involved in the attack on Sri Lankan cricket team in March this year. Poor coordination between civilian law enforcement and the military is obvious.
Secondly, a profile of Aqeel, the only terrorist arrested at the scene at GHQ, is quite instructive. Hailing from Kahuta in Punjab province, Aqeel was an employee of Army Medical Stores before he joined local militant groups (first Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and then Jaish-e-Mohammad). Later he became a member of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and remained a close associate of Ilyas Kashmiri, al Qaeda's chief of paramilitary operations in Pakistan who was recently killed in a drone strike in South Waziristan. Punjabi police were looking for him in connection with a number of recent terrorist attacks in Punjab, and he is suspected of involvement with the Sri Lankan cricket team attack.
Thirdly, the TTP's Amjad Farooqi group claimed responsibility for the attack shortly after it became public. An old Harkatul Mujahideen fighter, Amjad Farooqi's links with al Qaeda are well established. And lastly, some Pakistani media analysts known for their hawkish views openly speculated on Pakistani television about Indian intelligence agencies' possible role in the attack -- especially in the context of a growing India-Pakistan rivalry inside Afghanistan, but there is no proof of Indian involvement in this attack. In fact, these terrorists' links to indigenous militant groups in Waziristan have already been acknowledged by the army and police.
To understand how the Pakistani Army will view this developing situation, three other factors are also very relevant. Effective military operations in Swat have taught the army that 'a stitch in time saves nine' and that without public support no military campaign can succeed. Additionally, Indian allegations about the Pakistani Army's direct involvement in every attack on its personnel and interests in Afghanistan help those extremist elements in Pakistan who see India and Pakistan clashing on every path. And finally, the divergence in the civil-military perspectives about the intent and content of the Kerry-Lugar bill has generated a major debate in Pakistan about the nature of the U.S.-Pakistan relations. A trust deficit is unfortunately growing on both sides despite regular interaction between leaders of the two countries and public cooperation in counterterrorism field.
The complexity of the challenge at hand for both Pakistan and the U.S. is vividly apparent in this context. Despite this setback, Pakistan cannot afford to delay the ground operation in South Waziristan, as that will only provide TTP with more time to resolve its leadership crisis, reorganize, and acquire more armor and weaponry. For the TTP and its associates, the GHQ attack will be deemed a successful operation, useful for attracting more recruits. But on the flip side, Pakistani public support for more effective counterterrorism measures will also increase. As most polls and surveys indicate, Pakistani support for effective action against TTP and other militant groups increased after the rise of violence in the Swat Valley area. So, the time is ripe to cleanse the FATA as well as parts of South Punjab where extremism is brewing. For this to happen, intelligence sharing between Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the civilian law enforcement agencies, especially the competently led Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and newly constituted National Counterterrorism Authority (NACTA), will be critically valuable.
Indian political leadership, despite its reservations about the 2008 Mumbai attack investigation in Pakistan, can also help by fully reviving the peace process with Pakistan and by restraining itself from accusing Pakistan of blame for everything that negatively affects India. The Obama administration can lend a hand by convincing the U.S. Congress to reframe the few provisions of the recently passed aid bill that have become controversial in Pakistan. Pakistan's politicians on their part can help the army's counterterrorism resolve by standing together and developing consensus on major policy issues confronting the state.
The Pakistani Army's track record is not enviable. Its disastrous interferences in political affairs and pursuance of illegitimate foreign policy goals through non-state actors cannot be justified on any grounds. Still, Pakistan needs a disciplined, cohesive and efficient army today more than ever before. Anything less than a full-on counterterrorism effort from the Pakistani military will attract more serious challenges tomorrow than those it confronted yesterday.
Hassan Abbas is a Bernard Schwartz fellow at the Asia Society and senior advisor at the Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School. He is also the author of Pakistan's Drift into Extremism.