A 10-member Taliban suicide squad, wearing uniforms stolen from Pakistani security forces, attempted an audacious raid on the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, Pakistan, this week. Well-armed and well-trained, they eventually left a death toll of 30. Their goal was simple — to hijack a plane to use for an even larger-scale attack.
Using rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, the Taliban fighters gained access to the airport through a disused terminal. They eventual broke into two teams, and while one created a diversion, the other went in search of a plane to steal. In the end, after five hours of fighting, seven Taliban fighters were killed, and three used their suicide vests to avoid capture. Meanwhile, the busy airport had ground to a halt.
The bold assault was in retaliation for the killing last November of Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, who was a victim of a U.S. drone attack. Shahidullah Shaid, a Taliban spokesman, stated very clearly that the Karachi raid was just the beginning.
Although ultimately unsuccessful, the attack demonstrates that the Islamist extremists are still a force to be reckoned with and that President Barack Obama's much-heralded "AfPak" strategy is now in tatters. The current prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, who campaigned for office a year ago on the promise of reaching a truce and eventually a permanent peaceful settlement with the Taliban, has also been dealt a serious blow to his credibility. Earlier talks with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan had led to a cease-fire, but that lasted only one month.
In addition, Sharif's attempts to improve Pakistan's image as a place to do business have been undermined by this attack, as well. Karachi is the economic and financial hub of Pakistan, home to the country's stock exchange and central bank. To date, many international airlines still refuse to schedule direct flights to the troubled country.
In response to the airport raid, Pakistan has responded by bombing suspected Taliban bases in the Khyber tribal district. Sharif's government is under enormous pressure to respond forcefully and decisively. Airstrikes may not be enough to dislodge the Taliban from their safe havens in North Waziristan. A comprehensive offense, coordinated on both sides of the border with Afghanistan, could eventually be necessary, although the costs might be high.
Sharif's stated goal of making peace with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan now seems to be nothing more than a fanciful dream. Even when talks were taking place, Taliban demands were high. By their demanding the imposition of Shariah and the abolition of democracy, it is hard to imagine what ultimate consensuses could have been reached by Sharif's government.
The U.S. killing of Mehsud appears to have reinvigorated a terrorist organization that had previously seemed on the wane. Since November, Taliban suicide bombings had increased in both number and effectiveness. Mehsud's replacement as leader is Maulana Fazlullah, who was responsible for ordering the shooting of Malala Yousufzai two years ago. Malala briefly became an international symbol for the right of girls to receive an education, but Fazlullah seems now to be having a much larger impact on the future of Pakistan than the endearing schoolgirl.
For years, Islamabad has been focused on the potential military threat posed by India. Instead, it is an internal threat, in part of Pakistan's own making, that appears to put the country in the greatest danger. Importantly, it was the Pakistani security services that initially fostered and funded Islamist terrorist groups to gain leverage in the disputed Kashmir region and later used the Taliban to maintain an upper hand in Afghanistan. Now Pakistanis are paying the price for these decisions as the Taliban increasingly turn their sights to Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal.
This isn't simply another terrorist attack in some distant part of the world; both the White House and all Americans must bear in mind when looking at the Karachi airport attack that Pakistan is a country that has developed and tested offensive nuclear weapons. Should an Islamist extremist group overthrow the government in Islamabad, that arsenal would then become its plaything.
With 45,000 deaths since fighting with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan first began in 2007, it is understandable that many Pakistanis want the killing to stop once and for all. If a negotiated peace were an option, then it would be worth considering. Unfortunately, it is clear that this path is not open to Pakistan. Instead, the Taliban will have to be defeated.
The awkward question for the White House is whether the Obama AfPak strategy has made the situation in Pakistan better or worse. It has been the centerpiece of the president's foreign policy in the region since the earliest days of his first term, so his personal legacy will be driven in large part by how Pakistan ultimately resolves the Taliban threat.
Timothy Spangler is a writer and commentator who divides his time between Los Angeles and London. His radio show, "The Bigger Picture with Timothy Spangler," airs every Sunday night from 10 p.m. to midnight Pacific time on KRLA AM 870. To find out more about Timothy Spangler and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.