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Al Qaeda-allied Pakistani Taliban militants stormed the airport in Karachi, Pakistan’s busiest and most-populous city, late on Sunday night, beginning a multi-hour siege that left at least 28 people dead and the Pakistani government’s attempts to strike a peace deal with the Taliban in tatters. The assault may finally push the Pakistani government into launching a major military offensive in terrorist-infested North Waziristan, a move that would be the biggest disruption to al Qaeda in the region in years.
A Well-Coordinated Assault
Ten heavily-armed fighters from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the main Taliban umbrella group in Pakistan, entered Karachi’s airport campus through an entrance serving the airport’s old terminal, now a cargo and VIP facility. Divided into two five-man teams, the fighters carried small arms, RPGs, grenades and suicide bomb vests. Pakistani officials say the terrorists attempted to fight their way onto the runway to destroy and hijack planes, and to take hostages in the main terminal. While security forces succeeded in preventing the militants from doing so, the running gunfight and then siege resulted in the deaths of over 18 civilians and security personnel. Army commandos finally arrived on scene and surrounded and killed all ten assailants, some of whom detonated their suicide bomb vests once cornered.
A TTP spokesman took credit for the attack on Monday morning, calling it revenge for Pakistani military attacks on the group in the tribal areas and the death of the its leader in a CIA drone strike in November 2013. He promised more such attacks in the future. The well-planned assault should put to rest speculation among analysts that the recent split of a major faction from the group earlier this month would have any impact on the larger movement’s fighting effectiveness. It will also likely be the coup de grace in a protracted, fruitless series of peace talks between the Pakistani government and the TTP.
Preparing for an Offensive
A silver lining in the whole affair may be that the headline-grabbing siege may finally give the government the ammunition it needs to publicly sell a major military offensive in North Waziristan, a key al Qaeda and TTP stronghold in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The government squandered the momentum it had earlier this year, for what then seemed like an imminent operation, when it decided to launch a last-ditch parley with the militants. The government has been reluctant to take on the operation, fearing the political ramifications of a TTP backlash across the country, but the high-profile and emasculating assault will make it more difficult for the prime minister to ignore the army, which has been straining at the bit, and an angered public.
Preparations for an assault into North Waziristan already appear to be in their final stages—a major militant faction in the region renounced a long-standing peace deal with government and called in its fighters to cease operations across the border in Afghanistan, claiming that the government was preparing to launch an offensive in its area of control and that all hands were needed for defense at home. The local population has also seen the writing on the wall and begun fleeing for safety. Both local and foreign fighters are reportedly leaving the area, some hiding among internally displaced persons.
The First Disruption in Years
While an assault on the TTP’s main stronghold in North Waziristan may not be enough to defeat it, it would be a major blow to the group which has operated from the region unmolested for years. Al Qaeda, for whom the TTP is a key enabler and facilitator, has taken advantage of the TTP’s recent resurgence in Pakistan to rebuild its own strength. The only factor keeping al Qaeda in Pakistan off-balance in the past few years was the heavy tempo of U.S. drone strikes on its havens. There has not been a strike inside Pakistan for nearly six months now, however.
If the Pakistani military finally launches a major ground offensive, al Qaeda, the TTP and the larger militant milieu that takes advantage of the governance black hole in the region may be forced onto the defensive and, at the very least, suffer dislocation from a key haven and significant disruption to their operations. If the U.S. government’s (over)enthusiastic claims that al Qaeda in Pakistan has been defeated are to finally ring true, it needs to hope the Pakistanis follow through on North Waziristan.
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