By Abhijit Singh
Pakistan is reeling under the impact of the Taliban strike on its naval base PNS Mehran. In an audacious attack on May 23, 2011, militants infiltrated the high security facility in Karachi, carrying out multiple explosions that reportedly killed at least ten naval personnel and destroyed two P-3C Orion Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft. The Taliban said the strike was a reprisal attack for the May 2 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
So daring was the strike that it initially stung the Pakistani security forces into a state of paralytic inaction. They soon recovered and after 17 hours of sustained counter-operations and offensive commando action, the terrorists were eventually neutralised. But it did raise the stakes immensely for the security forces to guard against future attacks on military installations, also raising the spectre of a terrorist strike on Pakistan’s nuclear facilities.
While this is the first instance of a high security naval base being struck by the Taliban, the attack is significant as it is for the third time in the past four weeks that the Pakistan Navy (PN) has been targeted. On April 28, Taliban militants attacked a naval bus with a roadside bomb, killing four navy personnel. Two days earlier, two bombs hit buses carrying navy personnel in a residential complex at Karachi, killing four people. Curiously, it is after a gap of a few years that a wave of militant attacks has struck the Navy. After the Pakistan Navy War College attack in May 2008, in which five people were killed, this is the second time that the Pakistan Navy has been targeted by militants – only this time, the Taliban have struck in a wave of three quick attacks.
On the Taliban’s Crosshairs
The brazenness and sheer audacity of the strikes raises some fundamental questions about security of naval facilities at large. What are the real reasons behind the recrudescence of terror hits on the Pakistan Navy? Why are naval installations and facilities perceived to be ‘vulnerable’ to terrorist attacks? Is it happenstance that the Taliban struck the expensive and high-value P-3C Orion aircraft?
A navy’s readiness to deal with a terrorist attack is, most often, a theoretical proposition. This is because the idea of exercising naval power is, by its inherent nature, a notion premised on fighting an organized, conventional and mostly ‘respectable’ adversary. The lofty concept of naval war-waging on the high-seas is somehow far removed from the prosaic idea of security provisioning against low-brow terrorist or guerrilla strikes. The militants’ proclivity to target the Pakistan Navy appears, in part, to be driven by its own model of security that tends to underestimate the magnitude of a terrorist threat and encourages militants to target the soft underbelly of its land infrastructure. Such an approach may however not be limited to the PN alone. Subliminally, the outlook to security in Navies, in general, does not seem to actively account for a terrorist threat.
An Effective and Intelligent Ploy
The first major terrorist attack on the PN was in Karachi, in May 2002, in which 11 French engineers were killed. Since then there have been five attacks on the navy, including the failed bid of a suicide-bomber on the PN Headquarters in Islamabad in June 2009, and the three strikes in May this year. The Mehran attack is, however, one of the biggest assaults on a naval establishment ever, and quite unprecedented in scale and intent.
From a purely tactical point-of-view, a terrorist hit on a naval facility is the most effective and intelligent way of making a political point; ‘effective’, because it entails hitting an ‘armed force’ in a supposedly well-protected urban area – an act that accrues much publicity and media attention; ‘intelligent’, as it targets a principal, less likely to be fully prepared to tackle the threat.
Typically, most of these strikes are directed at stationary high value targets (viz. naval aircraft, radar facilities, etc) and services (buses and other modes of mass transportation). Each has been seen to involve improvised explosive devices that result in high casualties. But the Taliban have also seemingly taken advantage of organisational ‘stock responses’ to heighten the effectiveness of their attacks. By virtue of its small size and limited experience to high-risk security situations, the PN appears to lend itself to a reactive and exaggerated response matrix. For instance, within hours of the first attack in Karachi on the naval bus, it announced the shutting down of all schools and other facilities in the defence area, a move that kept the media mills churning for many days after the attack. The ‘pronounced reaction’ creates much speculation in the media and plays perfectly into the militants’ game-plan.
Another strong pattern to have emerged is that multiple terror strikes are directed at the same facility within a relatively short span of time. Within two days of an attack on two buses with navy personnel on Apr 26, a second strike was carried out on a similar target. Terrorist attacks in ‘well-defended’ areas are uniquely distinctive in the false sense of assuredness they cause in their aftermath – no one expects them to occur again in the near future, almost as if the ‘law-of-averages’ altogether discounts such a possibility. The Taliban know this phenomenon well; the PN is only beginning to discover it.
The Taliban have time and again shown that they are keen to exploit loopholes in security in well-protected cities, not just to prove a political point but also to effectively showcase their destructive prowess. An attack in the heart of a well defended urban hub creates a splash, giving terrorists the most media mileage. More importantly, even if the attack is partially foiled, as it did in the case of the Apr 28 attack on the Navy bus in Karachi, it still succeeds in making the required impact. Even few casualties in a well-known urban centre have the propensity to create panic.
A False Sense of Security
The repeated targeting of Pak Navy facilities in Karachi shows that an urban environment tends to promote a certain sense of complacency among military units positioned in its midst. Because terrorists are deemed to be disgruntled elements that live on the fringes of society, there is a false perception that they seek easy targets in an exposed and insecure environment, leaving well-defended urban areas alone. The misplaced confidence in security also stems from the knowledge that the might of the security establishment is focused on protecting defence establishments and installations – an irrational approach that makes a terrorist strike seem like an ‘aberration’.
It could be plausibly surmised that the Taliban expect the military response following a terrorist strike to be relatively ‘muted’ if the lesser known Navy is targeted. An attack on the Pak Army – perceived as being on the front line of the war on terror – is certain to be taken as another serious tactical blow and an affront to the military establishment that would result in a serious counter-attack. A terror strike on a navy facility, on the other hand, would be seen as just another ‘dangerous’ act of terrorism that must be guarded against in the future.
Adopting Force Protection Measures
So what is it that needs to be urgently done to counter the threat?
By their essential war-waging philosophy, naval forces are more given to launching offensive combat operations than protecting against terrorist attacks. The official inquiry into the USS Cole incident in 2001 had held that a lack of ‘force protection measures’ had been principally responsible for the success of the terrorist attack. The inquiry report concluded that “the commanding officer the ship did not have the specific intelligence, focused training, appropriate equipment or on-scene security support to effectively prevent or deter a determined, pre-planned assault on his ship” and recommended significant changes in Navy procedures. It’s a lesson that many navies need to learn fast.
The US Navy’s security postures today have strengthened, not just at sea, but at ground installations and bases throughout America. It is a differentiated, place-and-situation specific security system, wherein different security measures could come into play in diverse facilities under specific circumstances. Naval Base commanders are now known to routinely change their security measures for exercises or to publicly present a random force protection posture. Persons entering an installation are subjected to additional screening including searches as security levels increase. An annual force protection exercise, titled “Curtain-Citadel Shield” (held in February this year) involves a comprehensive testing of naval installations’ levels of readiness and the ability to maintain increased security measures for extended periods of time. The exercise is meant to improve security and vigilance, and also ensures that security personnel are well-trained and equipped to deal with exigent situations. It is a model crying out to be duplicated by other navies.
The siege of the ‘Mehran’ would doubtless lead to serious introspection within the PN and an upgrading of security measures. It must result in a perceptual change in ‘force protection’ philosophies, training procedures and security management. It should also serve as a stark reminder to other navies of the perils of lax security, and make them conscious of their own vulnerability to terrorist attacks.
(Abhijit Singh is a Research Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi (NMF). He tracks political developments and geo-strategic issues in West Asia and Pakistan.)