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4 reasons the Pakistani Taliban is winning

Fire illuminates the sky above Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, Pakistan, where security forces fought with attackers Sunday night. (Fareed Khan/Associated Press)

On Sunday night, Pakistani security forces waged an hours-long firefight with militants who assaulted the main airport in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city. At least 28 people were killed, according to the BBC, including all 10 assailants. Armed with machine guns, grenades, rocket launchers and suicide vests, the attackers infiltrated a part of the airport used both for cargo as well as a terminal for VIP dignitaries. They fought over the course of the night with airport security, police and later Pakistani special forces.

Pakistani authorities claimed that the heroism of their security personnel prevented further carnage and even the destruction of passenger aircraft. But the militants appear undeterred. On Monday, the Pakistani Taliban took credit for the attack. A spokesman for the group, also known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), told a Pakistani newspaper that the assault was in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike in November that killed Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud. "This is just the beginning," the spokesman warned. Here's why the Pakistani Taliban has reason to be confident.

A many-headed hydra
The Pakistani Taliban is in reality an umbrella organization that brought together dozens of militant factions and armed gangs in 2007. It's distinct from the Afghan Taliban, which was more directly the creation of Pakistan's military in the shadow of the Cold War. The Pakistani Taliban rejects Pakistan's constitution, calls for the institution of sharia law in the country and targets institutions of the state as well as civilians, including religious minorities.

What began as a low-level militancy in Pakistan's tribal belt along the porous border with Afghanistan has now metastasized into a sprawling insurgency that has tapped into nationwide networks of criminal syndicates and other terrorist organizations. The Pakistani Taliban's profile in Karachi has grown in recent years, highlighted by a spate of brazen attacks, including the 17-hour siege of a Pakistani naval base near the airport in 2011.

Despite its effectiveness, the Pakistani Taliban operates in a fashion that is "not as hierarchical as one terrorist group may be," says Hassan Abbas, author of the new book "The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier." Pakistan's government, Abbas says, has struggled to adjust to the threat posed by the militants, who have claimed thousands of lives. "The Pakistani Taliban are as dangerous as al-Qaeda once was," he says. "People think they're just Pashtun tribals. But it has become a much more complicated crisis."

Chaos and fear
Although the Pakistani Taliban did not wreak as much havoc in the Karachi airport as it may have intended, the raid can still be framed as a success. Karachi is a global megacity and the hub of much of Pakistan's economic activity. That its main airport — one of the most fortified places in the city — could still be prone to this kind of shocking combat underscores the larger insecurity gripping the country. "They wanted very clearly to create a general sense of terror for ordinary people," Abbas says. "If it can happen in Karachi airport, it can happen anywhere."

That hardly inspires confidence among foreign investors, whom the government in Islamabad is desperate to woo. Pakistani Taliban militants have also targeted tourists, killing 10 foreign trekkers in a raid up in the Himalayas last summer. "The TTP again appears to be at the center of a terrorist pattern that ostensibly aims to hurt the country's economic interests and isolate it internationally," writes Imtiaz Gul, head of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad.

During Pakistan's election cycle last year, Taliban bombings and death threats made it virtually impossible for candidates from secular or left-of-center parties to campaign in certain parts of the country. The government that came in, led by the conservative three-time premier Nawaz Sharif, entered a complex political landscape and in a controversial move decided to start talks with factions of the Pakistani Taliban.

Crisis in leadership
Part of the problem has been the "incoherence" — as Abbas puts it — of the government's counterterrorism policies. As its armed forces wage a limited counter-insurgency in the tribal areas, it has continued its efforts to dialogue with the Taliban even as the militants wage all sorts of violence across the country. Despite the volumes of Pakistani blood on the Taliban's hands, public opinion isn't firmly in favor of a ruthless crackdown. One of Sharif's main political rivals, the Movement for Justice, led by the charismatic ex-cricketer Imran Khan, made rapprochement with the militants one of the major planks of its platform. Sharif's desire not to lose future votes, rather than perhaps larger strategic considerations, spurred the start of talks.

For a long time, the military, elements of whose notorious intelligence agency, the ISI, had links to al-Qaeda and a host of shadowy terror networks, has been seen as the main problem. But reports suggest that its top brass is sanguine about the scale of the domestic threat. The civilian leadership is walking a trickier line.

The talks with the Pakistani Taliban gave legitimacy to a host of fringe Islamist figures affiliated with the militants, some of whom now appear on mainstream media. Islamabad points to its recent success in pulling a powerful faction within the Taliban away from the larger group. But the attack in Karachi shows that such a schism means little to a constellation of Taliban-linked groups that, despite their differences, will collaborate and share logistical resources in their struggle against the state. "The government has not only been fooled," Abbas says. "It is standing in the middle, looking clueless."

The specter of Afghanistan
While the bodies were still being counted, government spokesmen were already pointing the finger at "outside forces." Numerous Pakistani officials have described the assailants as Uzbek, though little clear evidence confirming their identity has been produced. Fighters from Central Asia, sometimes in the employ of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, have been known to operate in Pakistan's rugged border region for the past decade. That they could be in the ranks of Pakistani Taliban units would not be a surprise.

But, Abbas says, the impulse of Pakistani officialdom to look elsewhere for its enemies is part of "a very well-entrenched problem of denial."

In previous stints in power, Sharif turned a blind eye to powerful terrorist groups operating in his home state of Punjab, most of which were arrayed against archrival India. Pakistan — the ISI, in particular — incubated the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s largely for "strategic depth" in the region, eager to fend off the influence of India, Iran and others in Afghanistan. In a sense, those chickens have come home to roost.

The Pakistani Taliban justifies its airport attack by pointing to Islamabad's collusion with the U.S. war on terror, a complaint that finds a lot of traction among the wider Pakistani public. But there has not been a single U.S. drone strike in Pakistan for at least half a year. Eventually, Pakistan's leadership will have to face a grim reckoning and make tough political decisions. If not, it will have only itself to blame.