Friday, 21 December 2012

Peshawar airport: behind the tattoos

originally titled  Choosing confusion over clarity -ed note

By M. Taqi

Each time Pakistan and its leadership are at a fork in the road, they choose the path to confusion over the one that could ultimately lead to some clarity. They may even take a long, arduous detour to chaos if they have to. Chances to build consensus against terrorism are squandered almost impulsively now. Alternatively, great pains are taken to muddle up a situation where lucidity is shouting at the top of its lungs. The national pastime of conspiracy mongering morphed into a national creed and now appears to have become the national instinct.
picture via ANP web site

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) base Peshawar and the attached Baacha Khan International Airport run by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) came under a brazen terrorist assault this past weekend. The western perimeter of the airport was attacked by a group of terrorists — some of Uzbek origin as per the ISPR — armed to the teeth, including with suicide vests. But even before the guns went silent the debate over the attack had degenerated into a spat over the hillat or hurmat (permitted or forbidden, respectively) of a tattoo in Islam!

More elaborate than the tattoo found on the terrorist(s)’ back(s) were the arguments put forth by those who saw an anti-Islam force at play in the ‘un-Islamic’ impression. For them the imprint was proof beyond any reasonable doubt that the man was a non-Muslim sent by the Indians, Zionists or Americans — or a joint venture thereof, take your pick — to attack the citadel of Islam. The tattoo became an instant Rorschach test of the Pakistani national psyche that was seeing an array of conspiracies unleashed against it in the picture. That a convert to Islam may have had a decoration done in an earlier, ‘decadent’ life to celebrate a birthday, mourn a breakup with a girlfriend or perhaps just for the heck of it, and could not have it undone it after finding the ‘light’, conveniently did not pass through their mind. No matter how many ways the Rorschach could be interpreted, here it only meant an ‘impure’ plot against the land of the pure.

Let us face it, the PAF base Peshawar and the airport are a very high profile but relatively soft target, a proverbial low hanging fruit for the terrorists. But before I go any further I must give a bow to the civilian and military personnel who defended the base and thwarted an attack that could have resulted in many more casualties, including civilian lives. The audacity of the terrorists was matched, nay drowned, by the resolve of the police and armed forces. If only the fickleness at the top could mirror the resolute rank and file. I may be going out on a limb, but the Peshawar airbase is no Kamra. Certainly, an operational base and home to the Northern Air Command with fighter and surveillance aircraft stationed there but not much of the aeronautical and strategic significance associated with the Minhas base at Kamra. The air traffic in and out of the airstrips is overwhelmingly civilian, the bulk of which, in turn, is international with the overseas Pashtun workers travelling on these flights predominantly. Still, the airport is surrounded by the PAF facilities on its eastern, southeastern and southern sides, including the PAF officers’ mess, hospital, offices, residential facilities and the good old PAF School and College, now rechristened as the Fazaia College. The point is that each one of the facilities is a prime — yet soft — target for a determined attacker.

Unlike the PAF bases at Mauripur (Masroor), Samungli and Badaber, developed originally outside the cities, the Peshawar airport and the PAF base have been part of the Peshawar landscape for the longest time. A gingerly stroll across the Mall Road, up the Squadron Leader Sarfaraz Rafiqui Shaheed Road past the PAF officers’ mess, college on the west and Air Head Quarters (moved to Chaklala circa 1985) and hospital at the end leading up to the airbase, with the Quaid-e-Azam M A Jinnah’s Dakota plane on display at one of the aprons, was something one looked forward to on the 7th of September — the PAF Day — each year. The village of Pawaka towards the western periphery of the airport, where the terrorists came from and the village of Tehkal Bala to the north where one of the CAA airstrips ends, were always where they are. It is not the geography that has changed. The terrorists take sanctuary not merely in the villages and towns but in the ideological space afforded them by the squabble over the tattoos.

The jihadist contagion that Pakistan had let loose on the world had boomeranged on it with a vengeance a good two decades ago. Harbouring Chechens, Uzbeks, Uighurs and the Arabs was never going to be without consequences. Devolution of jihad to individuals and outfits — read transnational terrorism — as an instrument of foreign policy was bound to have a blowback. The most unfortunate part is that many in the security establishment do actually subscribe to the jihadist nonsense they have fed impressionable young minds. And others were reverse-indoctrinated. They are still gung ho about neatly boxing the killers as the good, the bad and the ugly Taliban. And the political appendages of the security establishment faithfully oblige by swiftly creating a fog around every Shara-e-Faisal, Kamra and Peshawar attack. These ITMs — ideological teller machines — return fatwas for cash. But the way they spring into action also suggests that it is not just that the powers that raised the jihadist proxies are flippant about dismantling this infrastructure of terror; they are actually very serious about preserving it.

Nothing has undermined Pakistan’s sovereignty like sharing it with the transnational jihadists like Osama bin Laden and his mentor, Abdullah Azzam, right to the Uzbek Tahir Yuldeshev. To restore it to its people would take a tectonic shift in the thinking of the security establishment, which does not seem be on the anvil. After dragging its feet on the North Waziristan Agency (NWA) operation, where many of the current legions of the transnational jihadists are, the Pakistani brass seems to have ‘successfully’ shelved it. It would not be a surprise if the Peshawar airport attackers were traced to their cohorts in NWA. But more ominous than any shelved operations, which, even when successful, are tactical victories at best, is using confusion as a strategy where clarity should have been demonstrated. But again, to many the dastardly terrorist attacks at home are merely the cost of doing business.

-This article was originally published by the Daily Times on Thursday, 20th December 2012. The writer can be reached at He tweets @mazdaki