Issues Around the Attack on Musharraf

Even for the Pakistanis who have become used to living dangerously and have witnessed their elected and unelected Prime Ministers and Presidents assassinated, hung in the dead of the night and blown out of the skies, the second consecutive terrorist attempt to kill President general Parvez Musharraf was nerve-racking. Unlike the December 14 targeting of the President this terrorist attack was not bloodless. Seventeen dead and fifty injured.

The windscreen of his bullet-proof and jammers-loaded Mercedes having been smashed, it was an incredibly close call for general Parvez Musharraf. Having survived this second terrorist attack an unruffled Musharraf addressed the nation’s concerns through a Q & A with a PTV correspondent. Having traveled back to Islamabad hours later for a dinner he had hosted, he attributed his survival to Allah’s blessings, his mother’s prayers and the Nation’s goodwill.

He acknowledged there had been a security lapse but with on a positive note he reaffirmed his faith in the security arrangements, in the police force and in the loyalty of ‘his men.’ He maintained that security against ‘moving’ weapons like suicide bombers, was difficult. The President had himself witnessed a police man give up his life while attempting to prevent one of the suicide bombers from hitting Musharraf’s car. Hence a grateful Musharraf spoke graciously. He boldly vowed to continue his “mission” against “terrorism.” SAARC summit would go ahead as planned since he and not the participating heads of states were the target of these terrorism attacks.

The President’s assertions notwithstanding, several noteworthy issues flow from the deadly event of December 25th. Four are noteworthy One some particular group is now consistently and in a coordinated fashion targeting Musharraf. This group, which attempted to take his life twice within eleven days feels confident of its capabilities. After all the planners of these attacks would know that the security apparatus would be alerted after the first attack. Normally the pursuit of a target would be abandoned for a period of time in which the security apparatus would become ‘de-alerted.’ Those targeting the President did not follow this principle. They went for him confident of their ‘professional’ ability to keep the operation covert despite heightened surveillance.

Two, the seriousness of the security lapse cannot be ignored. The President’s faith in his men around him notwithstanding there is a question of running the anti-terrorism security apparatus professionally. It require pre-emptive intelligence gathering in a coordinated manner. Police is merely a reactive force and the president did well to appreciate the policemen who died in the line of duty. However the venue, the timing and the manner in which the two terrorist attacks were pulled off unnoticed within half a mile of where the President resides calls for a fundamental re-examination of the country’s security and intelligence gathering set-up.

Suicide bombers targeting public places may not be easily traceable but is still part of the job description of the security agencies. Recognizing this, in response to the suicide attack on the church in the diplomatic area the President had ordered immediate transfer of the SSP in early 2002. Yet to remain on high alert within the vicinity of the President’s own place of work cum residence and one that has been the location of terrorist attack only ten days earlier, is both absolutely necessary and possible.

There are situations in which we cannot allow ourselves any margin of error. Protection of the life and property of all the people of Pakistan falls in that category. Yet it is unrealistic to expect a rapid turn around on a national scale. It is however not unrealistic to expect a turn-around within a limited zone- the President’s own area of work-residence. Effective anti-terrorism measures require impeccable professionalism which include inter-agency coordination. Hundreds of Pakistani citizens have been killed in targeted killings especially in Karachi. Three days ago a police officer and his teenager son lost their lives in sectarian targeted sectarian killing. The State is not responding sufficiently professionally and systematically to the threat of terrorism.

Three – the motives of the killers are also important. They are ostensibly of a supra-national ilk. Pakistan’s decision to opt for rule of law, although articulated and projected unnecessarily along ideological and not simply administrative lines, within its own territory plus support of the US anti-terrorism read anti al-Qaeda and to some extent anti-talibaan drive, has created pockets of latent and active hostility against the Musharraf government. Initial evidence on the suicide bombers indicates they were not Pakistanis. Also in the al-Qaeda networks few Pakistanis have been detected, although they do have sympathizers here as they do in many other Muslim countries. The attacks on Musharraf underscores the resentment of some organized and armed groups against Pakistan’s policies to uphold rule of law within the country.

Four – what are the signals the two attacks send on the home front and abroad. Not vastly different ones since the need for security of life is a pretty basic, powerful and universal need. Carrying out of two undetected terrorist attacks signals that Pakistan is in the ‘firing line’ generally and the President specifically. It calls for alertness within the security apparatus and tighter State controls on movements of foreigners within the country. Above all it requires a consistent articulation by the government for the international community to resolve the outstanding issues like Kashmir and Palestine.

In this difficult time, as expected the nation stood united, cutting across political and personal lines to condemn the attack. In the parliament and the Senate resolutions condemning the terrorist attacks on the president were passed unanimously. The State now needs to stand together to respond in a coordinated and competent manner to the challenge it faces. Standing by ‘ones own’ in troubled times maybe necessary, not sufficient. An objective stock-taking of the security-apparatus is apparently already underway.