In Pakistan, Mixed Results from a Peshawar Attack from Stratfor

In  Pakistan, Mixed Results From a Peshawar Attack is republished with  permission of Stratfor.”

By Ben West

The Pakistani  Taliban continue to undermine Pakistan’s government and military  establishment, and in doing so, they continue to raise questions over the  security of the country’s nuclear arsenal. On Dec. 15, 10 militants armed with  suicide vests and grenades attacked Peshawar Air Force Base, the site of a third  major operation by the Pakistani Taliban since May 2011. Tactically, the attack  was relatively unsuccessful — all the militants were killed, and the perimeter  of the air base was not breached — but the Pakistani Taliban nonetheless  achieved their objective.

The attack began the night of Dec. 15 with a volley of three to five mortar  shells. As the shells were fired, militants detonated a vehicle-borne improvised  explosive device near the perimeter wall of the air base. Reports indicate that  all five militants inside the vehicle were killed. The other five militants  engaged security forces in a nearby residential area and eventually were driven  back before they could enter the air base. The next day, security forces acting  on a report of suspicious activity confronted the militants, who all died in the  resultant shootout.

Pakistani security forces came away from the incident looking very good. They  prevented a large and seemingly coordinated team of militants from entering the  confines of the base and thus from damaging civilian and military aircraft. Some  of Pakistan’s newly  acquired Chinese-Pakistani made JF-17s, are stationed at the air base, and  worth roughly $20 million each, they were probably the militants ultimate  targets.

Another reason the militants may have chosen the base is its location.  Peshawar Air Force Base is the closest base to the northwest tribal areas of  Pakistan, where Pakistani and U.S. forces are clashing with Taliban militants  who threaten Islamabad and Kabul. The air base is most likely a hub for  Pakistan’s air operations against those militants. The Dec. 15 attack killed one  police officer and a few other civilians, but it did no damage to the air base,  the adjacent civilian airport or their respective aircraft. Flights were  postponed for only a couple of hours as security forces cleared the area.

Tactics and Previous Attacks

Major military bases in Pakistan have been attacked before. In May 2011,  Pakistani Taliban militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and firearms  destroyed two  P-3C maritime surveillance aircraft and killed 10 soldiers during an  attack on Mehran  Naval Air Base in Karachi. The militants entered the base by cutting through  the fence.

More recently, seven Pakistani Taliban militants scaled the walls of Minhas  Air Force Base in Kamra before killing a soldier and damaging a  Ukrainian transport aircraft. They were pushed back before they could damage the  squadron of F-16 fighter aircraft stationed at the base.

The Dec. 15 attack was not nearly as destructive as these other attacks,  probably because half the militants were killed immediately in the explosion at  the perimeter. Their deaths suggest the device detonated earlier than expected  or that they were not far enough from the device when it exploded. It is unclear  why they died, but the device could have detonated prematurely for several  reasons. There could have been a glitch in the construction or detonation  of the device. Otherwise, it could have been the result of the security  forces’ countermeasures (something officials have not yet claimed). Had the  militants survived the explosion and breached the perimeter, they might have  been more successful against security.

The Dec. 15 attack also differs from the previous two attacks tactically.  Whereas militants stealthily entered the bases in Kamra and Karachi, the  militants who attacked the base in Peshawar used mortars and explosives because  the wall — roughly eight feet high and topped with barbed wire — could not be  cut or climbed easily. These tactics are much more aggressive than the two  previous air base attacks, and therefore they immediately caught the attention  of security forces. Indeed, security forces in the vicinity would have heard  mortar shells and explosions. But just as important, mortar shells and  explosions create flames that security forces can use to pinpoint the attack and  respond quickly.

It is hard to say whether the combination and coordination of mortar fire,  explosives and a direct ground assault with firearms would have resulted in a  successful attack even if half the militants had not died in the initial  explosion. They certainly would have been greatly outnumbered. The few mortar  shells fired at the base may have suppressed forces momentarily, but the  militants did not sustain their indirect cover fire, which eventually allowed  security forces more mobility in responding. In any case, breaching the wall  with an explosion sacrifices the element of surprise too early — outside the  base rather than inside — reducing the amount of time the assailants have to  find their targets before security could respond.

A final reason the attack failed may have been the fact that the threat was  known about weeks earlier. In late November, authorities apprehended a would-be  suicide bomber and his handler entering Peshawar on a motorcycle. The suspect  later confessed that they were targeting the airport. Peshawar airport was  already on high alert after the attack on the Kamra base in August. The November  arrests heightened security, which lessened the militants’ chance of surprise.  Moreover, the arrests were made publicly available in open-source materials, so  the militants should have known that security forces were on high alert.

As for the security forces, the protective  intelligence available was obvious, and the attack came when they were  most prepared to repel it. Yet they benefited greatly when the explosion did  half their work for them. It appears that they just got lucky.

Strategic Value

The Dec. 15 attack appears to have been carried out by militants who intended  to replicate the damage caused by their comrades’ attacks in Karachi and Kamra.  Tactically, they failed.

But that does not mean the operation wasn’t valuable. Like previous attacks  on Pakistani military installations, the Peshawar attack grabs headlines because  of its high profile. Put simply, the sensitivity of the target demands media  attention.

As in the Karachi and Kamra attacks, the Dec. 15 attack involves the security  of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. There are no indications that there are nuclear  weapons stored at the Peshawar base, and there is no evidence that the nuclear  weapons that may have been stored at the Karachi and Kamra bases were  compromised. But the attack nonetheless raises questions about the security of  Pakistan’s military installations and by extension their nuclear  arsenal. For the United States and India, such attacks compel lawmakers to  revisit debates over whether the United States should intervene to protect the  weapons.

These headlines and discussions benefit the Pakistani Taliban because they  call into question Islamabad’s ability to rule. Meanwhile, the Pakistani Taliban  will continue to try to destabilize the military, one of the strongest pillars  of the state, and provoke  fear of external involvement from the United States.

In fact, the Pakistani Taliban would benefit from U.S. involvement, which  would create huge public backlash and chaotic conditions in which the militants  could thrive. The Pakistani Taliban do not necessarily need to destroy aircraft  or kill military personnel to raise these doubts in Pakistan and the wider  world. From the perspective of the insurgents, all the coordination and  firepower they brought to the attack was a strategic success if this attack  nurtures that doubt, even if it wasn’t as tactically successful as previous  attacks.

Read more:  In Pakistan, Mixed Results From a Peshawar Attack | Stratfor

 

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