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Implications of the Karachi attack

Commentary, 23 May 2011
Terrorism, Pacific, Central and South Asia
The co-ordinated attack on a Pakistani naval base, the latest assault on a military facility, raises deep questions about the security of the country's nuclear weapons and the endurance of Pakistan's relationship with China and the United States.

The co-ordinated attack on a Pakistani naval base, the latest assault on a military facility, raises deep questions about the security of the country's nuclear weapons and the endurance of Pakistan's relationship with China and the United States.

By Shashank Joshi for

PNS Mehran

23 May 2011: The fedayeen assault on the home of Pakistan's naval aviation is the worst terrorist attack in Pakistan since the raid on the country's army headquarters in October 2009.

Pakistan Naval Station (PNS) Mehran is located in Karachi, in the southern Sindh province. Karachi has not endured the same degree of militancy as other parts of the country, though it has not been unscathed. The Pakistan Navy, unlike the much attacked Frontier Corps, is not involved in counterinsurgency, but has been struck four times since 2008.

Though information about the attacks remains scarce, a few implications - however tentative, might be sketched out: whether this is revenge for the US raid on Osama bin Laden; whether Pakistan's nuclear weapons can be safe if its bases are not; the impact of the destruction of a maritime surveillance plane; and how this might further disrupt Sino-Pakistani relations.

Is this revenge?

Firstly, is this a second revenge attack for the killing of Osama bin Laden? It might be, but the attack showcased reasonably sophisticated fedayeen (commando) tactics: the exploitation of multiple entry-points, the use of heavy weaponry including rockets, the targeting of specific military hardware (Pakistan's Orion anti-submarine aircraft), and the ability to hold Pakistani special forces at bay throughout the night.

These are more complex than the simple, if bloody, suicide bombings that occur weekly across Pakistan. This implies that planning would have predated the Abbotabad raid. Unlike the US raid, the PNS Mehran attack is likely to increase national sympathy for the armed forces, insulating the institution from criticism for a short period, and removing the prospect, anyway small, of civilian elites curbing military influence. It also underscores the absence of a coherent Pakistani counterinsurgency strategy, and the scale and frequency of violence that has plagued the country for the past seven years.

Are the nukes safe?

Secondly, are Pakistani nuclear weapons safe, if the country's military installations are vulnerable to penetration through force, stealth, or the exploitation of inside-information? After all, Masroor Air Base, the country's largest, is only fifteen miles away from PNS Mehran, and likely hosts some warheads. The answer is that Pakistan's arsenal probably is secure, though this attack will renew earlier concerns that had abated.

In peacetime, Pakistan's nuclear warheads are almost certainly de-mated from delivery systems. Some sources suggest that the warheads may also be disassembled. Nuclear sites, unlike ordinary military installations, have three-tiers of security, all of which are controlled by the Strategic Plans Division rather than the conventional chain of command. The security at PNS Mehran, and the attention paid to its access points, is likely to have been far less than that present at equivalent nuclear installations or military bases housing nuclear material. Attacks on bases that may house nuclear weapons have been halted at the perimeter, usually with ease.

Nuclear personnel are screened every two years, and only 5 percent of individuals pass the screening process (that was in 2002; screening requirements will have tightened since then). The best evidence indicates that Pakistan's weapons are controlled by a 'code-lock' device, and that authentication requires at least two people. It is during crises with India, when launch authority might become pre-delegated and weapons may be moved between bases, when the risk is at its highest.

This is what makes the Pakistani military establishment's cultivation of militants so dangerous. The Pakistani state is battling some militants, like the Pakistani Taliban, whilst seemingly abetting others. If the latter groups strike at India, the resulting heightened fear of an Indian strike on Pakistani nuclear weapons may induce Pakistani officers to mate, move, or otherwise render less secure their nuclear weapons. Vipin Narang, a professor at MIT, writes that 'there are some indications, though no clear publicly available evidence, that Pakistan has moved or readied nuclear assets several times, and only in response to external threats'. [1] If this occurs in conjunction with a well-resourced and carefully-planned terrorist attack on a nuclear-related facility by the former group, the results are unpredictable.

Even during peacetime, the risk of insider collusion is not to be entirely discounted. Last year, Christopher Clary argued in a detailed and measured paper, Thinking about Pakistan's Nuclear Security in Peacetime, Crisis and War, that 'lower-level officers of an Islamist bent, perhaps together or separately with Pashtun ethnicity officers, angered by support to the United States or Pakistan's operations along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border might be able to launch a successful, localised mutiny.' [2]

In late-May, the Washington Post documented outrage amongst the Pakistani rank-and-file at the US raid for Osama bin Laden, sparking 'fears of morale and discipline problems' according to retired Pakistani defense officials. One officer stated that 'in the lower ranks, anti-Americanism is at its highest'.

US diplomatic cables leaked at the same time quoted Pakistan's Deputy Chief of Air Staff for Operations, Air Vice Marshal Khalid Chaudhry, as admitting that airmen from rural areas were being radicalised by extremist clerics, and that he was receiving 'monthly reports of acts of petty sabotage, which he interpreted as an effort by extremists amongst the enlisted ranks to prevent PAF aircraft from being deployed in support of security operations in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan border'. The vulnerability of advanced jet aircraft in sensitive locations to such sabotage indicates a deeply concerning level of base security that makes further assaults on bases an inevitability.

Even so, both collusion and physical assault are unlikely to yield a usable nuclear device or manipulable fissile material, and the small proportion of individuals able to collude would be unlikely to cut across every tier of security. This does not mean that Western policymakers should shy away from making their concerns felt in private; they should, in fact, make clear that the military establishment would be held responsible for any breach.

What might the destruction of the P-3C Orion mean?

Thirdly, the attack's terrible human toll was accompanied by the highly visible, and militarily significant, destruction of at least one, perhaps two, P-3C Orion anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft (one has been destroyed; two others appear damaged). These $35m US-supplied aircraft - advanced variants of the older P-3 aircraft - were inducted last summer, with the expectation that six more would follow by 2012.

Their loss compounds an already lopsided naval balance with respect to India, which now possesses twice as many submarines, and five antisubmarine warfare squadrons. In the first place, this prompted some to ask, in conspiratorial tones, why the Pakistani Taliban would attack such a site, and whether 'foreign agents' might be the more likely perpetrators of an attack whose beneficiary would be India. Although increasing numbers of Pakistanis recognise internal militancy as a serious threat to the country, the peculiar nature of the target may reinforce the self-destructive narrative that violence in Pakistan is the product of external meddling rather than internal rot. But the longer-term military implications are also important.

These may seem of little relevance in an age in which nuclear deterrence has tightly constrained the scope and intensity of Indo-Pakistani wars (see, for example, the enormous limits on escalation during the 1999 Kargil War). Does anyone really envisage a naval war, except as part of an all-out war in which third parties and their navies would be anyway engaged? But this perspective ignores that India might, in the aftermath of a future crisis, view a naval blockade as a suitably calibrated response that applies pressure on Pakistan without crossing nuclear thresholds. [3] Pakistan's now degraded anti-submarine warfare capabilities may prove to be of more than symbolic value.

A blow to Sino-Pakistani relations?

Lastly, the attack might buffet already shifting alliance dynamics. In early 2007, Pakistani militants in Islamabad, during a major siege on the Lal Masjid (literally, 'red mosque'), kidnapped ten Chinese nationals accused of working as prostitutes. China, already angered by prior abductions of Chinese engineers, pressed for the resulting assault, which induced a wave of retaliatory suicide bombings.

In the Karachi attack, early reports had suggested that Chinese engineers were reportedly amongst the hostages, though this seems not to have been true.  This comes a week after Pakistan formally requested that China build a naval base at the southwestern port of Gwadar, during a visit by Pakistan's prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, to Beijing. That visit also yielded a Chinese promise to deliver fifty JF-17 fighter aircraft within six months.

Neither Pakistan nor the US is confident in the future of their bilateral relationship, and Pakistan is eager to hedge by securing long-term Pakistani security guarantees and assistance; China, in turn, has long treated Pakistan as a low -cost, if irregular, counterweight to India's rise. If Chinese nationals are killed inside PNS Mehran, this would represent a blow to the recent wave of Pakistani efforts, particularly as China becomes more concerned about the possibility of unrest spreading eastwards. Even if no Chinese nationals have been captured or killed, the episode will reinforce Chinese anxieties of too-close an alignment with Pakistan. After a Saudi diplomat was murdered in Karachi in mid-May, and relations with the US frayed further, Pakistan is in danger of becoming progressively more isolated from all of its major patrons.



[1] Vipin Narang, Pakistan's nukes are safe. Maybe., Foreign Policy magazine, 13 August 2009, <>

[2] Christopher Clary, Thinking about Pakistan's Nuclear Security in Peacetime, Crisis and War, IDSA Occasional Paper, New Delhi, September 2010, <>

[3] Pakistan's Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, as head of the Strategic Plans Division, did specify that an Indian effort to economically strangulate Pakistan by naval blockade was one of Pakistan's red-lines for nuclear use. See Walter Ladwig's A Cold Start for Hot Wars?: The Indian Army's New Limited War Doctrine, International Security, Vol. 32, No. 3, Winter 2007/08, p169

[4] Isaac B. Kardon, China and Pakistan: Emerging Strains in the Entente Cordiale, Project 2049 Institute, 25 March 2011, <>


Shashank Joshi
Advisory Board

Shashank Joshi is Defence Editor of The Economist, where he writes on a wide range of defence and... read more

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