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Airbases: target of terror-attacks

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Attack on Peshawar Base

By S. M. Hali

Pakistan is in the eleventh year of participating in the war on terror (WoT), which has exposed it, to becoming a target of the terror attacks itself. The ongoing WoT has caused tremendous loss to Pakistan; nearly thirty nine thousand precious lives including five thousand five hundred security personnel, in addition to over twenty thousand injured and about sixty-eight billion dollars worth of property destroyed or lost. Most of the terrorists wreaking havoc in Pakistan and across the Durand Line in Afghanistan are former Mujahedeen, who were recruited, indoctrinated and trained to launch jihad against the Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

In 1989, after the defeat of the USSR, the international forces supporting the Mujahedeen, also withdrew posthaste, leaving the armed militia in a lurch, which turned into warlords and internecine wars to snatch control of Afghanistan, erupted. The motley crowd comprising Afghan society, is Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen, Hazaras and a number of other smaller but equally ferocious tribes. The assortment was muddled by thousands of international jihadists, who had reached Afghanistan to participate in the war to liberate Afghanistan. A majority of them was Arabs, Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Chechens, Muslim American and Europeans with some hailing from China, Indonesia, Myanmar, Bangladesh and even Australia and New Zealand. Many of them had burnt their boats and had nowhere to return after the war was over. Various tribes and alliance brought the foreign elements in their fold to join in the civil war that followed. Osama bin Laden (OBL), the Saudi billionaire, who was banished from his home country, temporarily set up camp in Sudan, which he was forced to leave but found sanctuary in strife torn Afghanistan. Meanwhile the Taliban organized themselves as a force to reckon with and conquered most of Afghanistan. It was in this background that OBL’s Al-Qaeda became responsible for international terrorism, which permeated into terror attacks like the ones on US Embassies in the major East African cities of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, the American Naval vessel, the USS Cole and culminated in the 9/11 attack in USA on the Twin Towers and Pentagon. US retaliated along with the international coalition forces overthrowing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan after a swift military attack. The US-led alliance made two grave errors, one it failed to decimate Al-Qaeda by not committing enough ground troops to hunt OBL after the air strikes on Tora Bora where OBL was holed up and secondly it provided the Taliban reprieve, when it opened a second front by attacking Iraq in 2003. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda, who were defeated but not annihilated, managed to regroup. They had found sanctuary in the rugged and treacherous terrain bordering the Pak-Afghan divide.

Pakistan had chosen to ally itself with the international coalition forces, providing its air bases, ground lines of communication and essential intelligence to its allies. This helped tighten the noose around the Al-Qaeda, many of whom were rounded up from Pakistani cities. This turned the wrath of the Al-Qaeda upon Pakistan but the attack on Pakistani cities and military installations only peaked after the Taliban/Al-Qaeda occupied Swat, South Waziristan and portions of North Waziristan. The Pakistani military launched major campaigns to oust them from Swat and South Waziristan. A fresh group surfaced, calling itself the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). This became responsible for inflicting major damage to Pakistani civilian and government installations. When the Pakistani military retaliated with full fury, it became the prime target, especially after the Lal Masjid debacle in Islamabad. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a number of politicians, military personnel, including Generals, Governors and Ministers became victims of the targeted attacks and lost their lives.

In order to eliminate the wily, treacherous and faceless enemy, operating from precipitous terrain, airpower was brought into use. The US added a new dimension to the war on terror, the unmanned drones, equipped with air to surface missiles. The drone attacks bore results but also caused collateral damage to innocent civilians. However, being operated from Langley, the Al-Qaeda/Taliban combo could do little to retaliate except intensify attacks on the NATO/ISAF troops in Afghanistan. Instead, they turned their attention to the sources of air power in Pakistan. Cobra gunship helicopters are being used by the Pakistan Army, while the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is employing surveillance platforms to locate terrorist hideouts and is targeting them with air-launched Precision Guided Munitions to reduce the chances of collateral damage. The terror mongers redirected the attacks by TTP towards the Pakistan military and airbases. The handlers of TTP re-indoctrinated them, identifying the Pakistani Armed Forces as the enemy, projecting them as allies of the West. It was impressed on the minds of the jihadists that the Pakistani Armed Forces had sold their souls to the enemy, thus it was imperative to target and eliminate them. Attacks on the Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters at Rawalpindi, PAF Bases at Sargodha, Kamra, Karachi, Kohat and Risalpur are links of the same chain. In the bargain, external enemies of Pakistan tried to fish in troubled waters and pointed towards the Pakistan Navy’s multi-million dollars asset, the maritime surveillance aircraft the P3C-Orions, thus the attack on PN airbase Mehran, which took a toll of two of the three high value assets.

The August 16, 2012 attack on PAF Base at Kamra, targeted the Saab 2000 Airborne Early Warning & Control System aircraft fitted with the Erieye radar. In the December 15 attack on Peshawar, the targets were the Cobra gunship helicopters and Fighter jets. It has now been identified that the terrorists want to eliminate the sources of air power thus the airbases have been targeted. This calls for renewed preparedness, learn lessons from the attacks so far and make it extremely difficult for the determined enemy to reach its target. It has also been observed that the enemy takes shelter in the residential areas, which have mushroomed in the vicinity of the airbases. A concerted effort is required to push back the private housings from the vicinity of the airbases to defend them effectively.

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