WASHINGTON -- A Taliban assault on Thursday against a Pakistani military base where nuclear weapons might be stored is unlikely to trigger any significant shifts in that nation’s counterinsurgency approach, according to South Asia experts (see GSN, Aug. 16).
“I don’t think that this is going to lead to any fundamental change of policy,” said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences and Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. “But this is [the Pakistan Taliban] sending a message to the Pakistan army that the closer you get to the Americans, the more we shall attack you.”
The armed raid on the Minhas air base in Kamra, roughly 25 miles northwest of the nation’s capital, sparked a two-hour battle that left one security official and eight insurgents dead. The attack is the third against major Pakistani military facilities in as many years; it follows a 2009 incursion against army headquarters in Rawalpindi and last year’s violent infiltration of a naval base in the southern port city of Karachi.
Kamra houses an array of fighter jets, including U.S.-made F-16s, and includes a manufacturing facility for aircraft and other weapon systems. The base is not far from Wah, where Pakistan is widely believed to have a facility where nuclear weapons are produced.
Washington has long voiced concerns about the risk that Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile, estimated at 90 or more warheads, could be vulnerable to theft by extremists. In turn, the Pakistani government has worried that the United States or India might someday seize its weapons, leading Islamabad to keep secret many details about the size, nature and location of its arsenal.
Defense Department spokesman George Little on Thursday reportedly said atomic warheads were not “endangered” in the Kamra strike, echoing past U.S. military assertions of confidence in Pakistan’s ability to safeguard its nuclear forces (see related GSN story, today).
Some experts have speculated that Pakistan might store warheads in underground bunkers at Kamra, located in the nation’s central region and ostensibly buffered from both rival India and restive Waziristan.
However, a Pakistani air force spokesman on Thursday was reported to have denied the presence of nuclear weapons at the base. Some military leaders there have said the warheads are stored separately from delivery vehicles, a contention that many outside experts believe plausible.
“Kamra would be a likely place for the air force to put its nuclear weapons,” Hoodbhoy said. “But I don’t think these weapons were the target. I think those people just wanted to kill a few officers and men and destroy some planes. They weren’t after the nukes.”
The Taliban attackers on Thursday were reported to have worn Pakistani air force uniforms. However, it is still unclear whether the assailants had assistance from insiders on the base, as was the case in the 2011 naval base incursion.
The latest assault comes on the heels of renewed Pakistani military ties to the United States, warming relations that the so-called Tehrik-i-Taliban has denounced. After a seven-month-long crisis triggered by airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani troops, Islamabad last month agreed with Washington to reopen NATO ground-supply routes for operations in Afghanistan.
In another setback for the Pakistani Taliban, media reports suggest the government is preparing to carry out a new offensive in the tribal region of North Waziristan, home to the powerful Haqqani network.
The nation’s army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, in a Tuesday speech suggested the time had finally come to crack down on militants that have targeted U.S. forces in Afghanistan from refuges inside Pakistan.
Despite years of intense pressure from Washington and repeated Pakistani promises to go after the Haqqani organization, though, a lack of army action against the violent extremists has left many observers skeptical.
“I think it’s very unlikely that they would actually go into Waziristan and attack the Haqqani group,” Hoodbhoy said. “They are making noises about that, but it involves loss of many men and the army is not in a mood to do that.”
Since becoming the top army officer in 2007, Kayani has tried to walk a line between cultivating U.S. relations and tolerating the Haqqani extremists, which has alienated Washington’s trust.
“The military has resorted to using these kinds of groups as an instrument of policy, but it has backfired on them,” said Stephen Cohen, a Brookings Institution foreign policy expert. “It’s been a policy that’s not paid off. The negative consequences both with India and with the United States are enormous.”
“The Kamra attack points to an irreconcilable jihadist element which is not mollified by the Pakistan army high command’s efforts to slowly disengage with the U.S.,” Hoodbhoy added. “Instead, these jihadists want a sharp breakoff and possibly war with the U.S.”
Still, Cohen does not imagine Kayani deviating anytime soon from the middle path he has carved out.
“When I see it, I’ll believe it,” he said. “The Pakistan government had a systematic policy of lying to the Americans on a lot of sensitive issues, and they thought it was in their own interest to do that,” he said, noting that the U.S. government has also backtracked from a number of promises to Islamabad over the years.
The Kamra attack -- a choreographed swarming raid that immediately overwhelmed base security -- could offer new evidence that the Pakistani Taliban has become strengthened by contact with more capable terrorists also present in the region.
“It looks like a merger of the [Pakistani Taliban] and al-Qaida in terms of tactics,” said Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center, noting it remained unclear if Taliban fighters had simply learned from, or were now working with, remnants of the major terrorist organization. “This is not a ragtag group of wild men anymore. They are employing sophisticated tactics.”
Now that another major military base has been shown vulnerable to attack, one modest change that might be anticipated is a Pakistani military effort to bolster security at these sensitive facilities.
“If incidents are recurring, that suggests the utility of revisiting your assumptions,” Krepon said. “Do you have enough defense in place? Might the next attack have more people who are better-armed?”
Krepon said he “would hope and expect that the Pakistan army, as a professional army, would take a fresh look” at what it now takes to protect the nation’s military facilities.
Hoodbhoy was not optimistic, though, that any such security improvements would stick.
“They’ll have their defenses up on all the bases for a while,” he said. “And then if nothing happens, then they’ll let it relax.”
What should the U.S. do -- if anything -- in response to this latest indication of vulnerability at Pakistani military installations?
“Nothing in public,” Krepon said.
“I think the U.S. should simply stay out of this,” Hoodbhoy said. “This is something that the Pakistanis have to deal with themselves. And they will realize, at some point, that the opposition that they have is growing and significant and enough to cause them a lot of damage. The sooner that realization comes about, the better.”
WASHINGTON -- A Taliban assault on Thursday against a Pakistani military base where nuclear weapons might be stored is unlikely to trigger any significant shifts in that nation’s counterinsurgency approach, according to South Asia experts.