Karachi airport attack betrays alarming slide

Special to Times of Oman

Much ink has already dried on the remains of the Karachi airport terrorist attack last week, but this does not lessen the need for greater introspection and what the latest in a long series of deadly attacks entails: an existential threat to Pakistan's integrity.

From the heartrending climax of people who took shelter in the cold storage facility in the hope of a rescue that never came, to the amazing survival of eight people crammed in a toilet for more than five hours, the episode sent people on an emotional rollercoaster, but in a nutshell it was this anonymous note in circulation on social networking sites that truly and, poignantly, captured the essence of what happened.

"Don't take me wrong, but they all had to eventually die. A group of 15 men could obviously not stand against army, rangers and police combined for long. Point is they still accomplished what they came for. They didn't come here to take the airport hostage for a lifetime. They came here to tell you that you aren't safe. They came here to tell you and the international community that Pakistan is nothing but a war zone. They came here to tell the people from other countries to not visit this country. They came here to tell foreign investors to not invest here. They came here to tell today's youth to fly out of this country. They came here to degrade your image. And they did it."

Thus went the silent, but stirring note.

Even though more technical aspects of the attack have dominated the debate over how the episode played out and who was responsible for the critical breach of one of the pre-eminent airports in the world and the overhaul needed to prevent such occurrences, the symbolic value of the above note is hard to match, each point scything through like a knife in its import and impact.

In its immediate wake, three developments with the same causal effect are piercing. Cathay Pacific suspended its operations, the Ireland cricket team cancelled its tour of Pakistan and the Maldivian president followed suit. Ever the master of symbolism, even Gulzar would have struggled to drive home the point about what happened and so swiftly and definitively.

While Cathay Pacific is considered one of the best airlines flying around, it is the decisions of low-ranked Ireland, which is otherwise dying for a rendezvous with any ICC full member, and the not-so-high profile Maldivian head of state that must rankle with Pakistanis.

Terror-hit Pakistan continues to be a no-go area ever since the unfortunate terrorist attack on the visiting Sri Lankan team in Lahore in March 2009. Therefore, even the meagre exchange with Ireland in a country where cricket is second only to religion was deemed a welcome change. Alas! it was not to be.

The decision from Maldives will have accentuated this grief, for, heads of states are in no such mortal danger, but yes, imagine the symbolic comedown!

Even Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a sympathetic view of the long shadows emanating from the Karachi airport attack in his response to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's recent letter, which was some sort of official recognition that Pakistan indeed itself is a victim of terrorism, a line betraying an ever so slight shift from the known New Delhi stance until now.

But this takes nothing away from the monumental failure to meet the threat of an implacable enemy that has continued to gnaw at the seams of the state's writ. .

Consider. In the last half a decade, Pakistan's foremost security installations, including all the armed forces headquarters or premier facilities have come under a robust militant attack. It began with a long siege of the army's General Head Quarters in Rawalpindi in 2009; then Mehran Base of Pakistan Navy in 2012 in Karachi and; finally, the Minhas Air Base, Kamra of Pakistan Air Force the next year. 1

These are but only a handful, if the most symbolic, attacks that should have necessitated a complete overhaul of the security paradigm. However, several repeat high profile episodes since then betray a perturbing failure to check the alarming slide into chaos, not to say a shaky national confidence overall.

Even in the aftermath of the Karachi episode, the Centre blamed the province and the province blamed the airport security apparatus before the Centre and the province locked horns in a blame-game that plays right into the hands of terrorists, who left little to imagination about how divided the house is with their lethal spells.

The author is a senior journalist based in Islamabad. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.


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