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Pakistan in Paralysis: Jailbreaks and a State in disarray

Sushant Sareen is Consultant, Pakistan Project, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • August 02, 2013

    When jail walls that hold dangerous terrorists start falling like nine-pins, they tend to become a metaphor not just for the dreadful state of security in a country but worse, for the unrelenting slide towards state failure. Just over a year after the jail break from the Bannu prison in which around 400 prisoners escaped after an assault by scores of Taliban, an even more spectacular and outrageous, but equally audacious, jail break has taken place in Dera Ismail Khan (DI Khan) with around 250 prisoners escaping.

    Unlike the Bannu jail which was outside the city, the DI Khan jail was located virtually in the heart of the city, a stone’s throw away from the Police Lines, a Frontier Corps ‘fort’, and the military cantonment. And yet, over a 100 armed Taliban riding on scores of vehicles entered the area after driving through dozens of security checkpoints, cordoned it off, set up pickets, put up booby traps and IEDs, snapped the electricity in the area (which given the crippling outages was probably not even necessary), blew up the entire outer security cordon, entered the jail through the front door which was thrown open by petrified jail guards, fired over 30 rockets inside the jail, freed all their men, butchered a few Shia prisoners, carried off four women prisoners and a woman guard as ‘war booty’ and after around four hours of mayhem simply disappeared back to where they had come, driving once again through dozens of checkpoints manned by FC and Pakistan Army without any let or hindrance. As if all this isn’t incredulous enough, there was prior and specific intelligence of the attack and the authorities had apparently even prepared and put in place a plan of action to thwart the attack.

    Surely, if the Pakistan security forces are so helpless against a rag-tag bunch of terrorists who conduct an operation lasting at least 6-7 hours (including the time it would have taken them to drive back to their safe haven in the Tribal Areas) in an area swarming with security forces, then they really had no chance against the US special forces which conducted the Abbottabad operation against Osama bin Laden. Clearly then, there is something quite sinister about the entire DI Khan jail break. More than what meets the eye – lack of capability, competence, commitment and coordination on part of law enforcement and security forces, the possibility of collusion of jail staff and perhaps local administration, suggestions of complicity combined with cynicism and callousness on part of the provincial government headed by Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaaf and having as its coalition partner the Jamaat Islami which is arguably the political face of the Al Qaeda, and last but not the least, an element of cowardice – it is what doesn’t meet the eye that raises serious questions, not to mention conspiracy theories, about how the Taliban could pull off such an operation.

    In a sense, an incident like the DI Khan jail-break was waiting to happen under the current PTI-led dispensation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Ever since this government has come to power, there is complete confusion among the security forces on the new policy on terrorism. Imran Khan’s soft approach on the issue of Taliban terrorism has demoralised the police and sent out conflicting signals on whether or not the police is expected to act against the militants. In recent weeks there have been reports that militants roam freely (and have practically the run of the place) on the outskirts of Peshawar. The attitude of the ministers of the government is nothing short of scandalous. Far from unequivocally condemning terrorist outrages, the provincial information minister Shaukat Yusufzai dismissed the hue and cry over a suicide attack in which over 20 people died by saying that it was just another bombing and not the ‘day of judgement’ (Qayamat ka din). Observers have pointed out that members of the new government don’t even consider it necessary to offer pro forma condolences to the victims families, forget about condemning the terrorist attacks.

    Apart from shifting blame to either the federal government or previous provincial governments (and of course, Imran Khan’s favourite bug-bear – drone attacks – which he blames for all the ills of Pakistan, if not the world) and ducking responsibility, there is absolutely no plan or strategy on countering terrorism in the province. No surprise then that there has been a spike in terrorism ever since the new government has come to power, and the jail-break is only the most glaring manifestation of the malaise. The situation is hardly better in Islamabad, where again there is no clarity on how to tackle the Taliban terrorism. While the PMLN government has been issuing pro forma condemnation of any terrorist attack, it seems to have no policy on terrorism. The much anticipated All Parties Conference is taking forever. Even if it does eventually take place, it will be little more than a talking shop and will neither be successful in forging the elusive political consensus on tackling terrorism, nor will it be able to evolve a coherent counter-terror strategy. In any case, the focus of the Nawaz Sharif government is more on addressing the energy crisis rather than the existential crisis presented by Taliban terrorism. What is more, the Nawaz Sharif government also has a soft approach towards the terrorists and is more interested in suing for peace instead of prosecuting the war. The sort of frenetic activity and bombast that was on display after Baloch insurgents blew up the Quaid’s Residency in Ziarat, has just not been on display when it comes to the actions of the Taliban.

    Not only is the political establishment’s ambivalence on the issue of terrorism rubbing off on the operational strategy of the security forces, it is also affecting their operational capacity, capability and most of all commitment. Preliminary reports from DI Khan reveal the sheer lack of preparedness of the jail authorities who were ill-equipped to handle a military style onslaught by militants. According to the IG Prisons, the jail officials were only equipped to handle prisoners inside the prison and not an attack from outside. Worse, the police and other security forces who were supposed to handle security outside the jail simply disintegrated in the face of the enemy. This could be the result of the security forces being overwhelmed by the firepower and well-coordinated nature of the assault. Perhaps, the security forces on the ground were neither trained nor equipped to face such an attack. But the element of cowardice cannot also be ruled out, especially because the forces deployed to prevent the attack were nowhere to be found when the attack actually took place.

    The failures of the civilian administration notwithstanding, what remains unexplained is why the army, which is omnipresent and omnipotent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA because of the militancy in these areas, also was unable to respond to the situation. The southern districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa border Pakistan’s ‘terror central’ – North and South Waziristan – and as such as regarded as extremely vulnerable. Movement between these districts and the Frontier Regions and Tribal Agencies is subject to the most strenuous checking at dozens of check posts set up for the purpose. If despite this, the Taliban could drive into DI Khan unhindered, carry out their operation unmolested, and drive back unchallenged, then it is quite natural for eyebrows to be raised and conspiracy theories (some of them quite plausible) to be born.

    While Pakistani analysts and observers haven’t said so in as many words, there are hints that there was some sort of deliberate ‘negligence’, even inaction, on part of the Pakistan army in this particular incident. If indeed there is any substance in such insinuations, then the reasons for this could be a) the army wanted to make a point with the PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the PMLN government in the Centre and impress upon them the implications of mollycoddling the Taliban; b) it was aimed at embarrassing the PTI and PMLN government's and bringing them under pressure with the aim of forestalling any unacceptable policy being framed by them on the terrorism issue; c) the army wanted to prove its indispensability by exposing the sheer incompetence and incapacity of the civilian law enforcement agencies; d) a carte blanche of sorts was given to the Taliban as part of some bigger deal that is in the offing; e) The army and the Federal government acted in concert to bring the provincial government down a peg or two and showing up its incompetence in order to discredit it – Chief Minister Pervez Khattak’s claim that he wasn’t aware of the threat to the jail is at best disingenuous and at worst dishonest because if his claim is true then either he is incompetent and doesn’t know how to run an administration or else he was complicit and was deliberately keeping himself out of the loop in order to either avoid responsibility, or worse, evade taking any decision that the Taliban would not like.

    Regardless of the real reason for the inaction, rather paralysis, of the state authorities in preventing the jail break, the fact is that the incident has dealt a body blow to the Pakistani state and has blown away whatever little confidence there was in the ability, capacity and commitment of the Pakistani state authorities in combating the Taliban. The traditional tactic of being too clever by half to score points over political rivals has already diminished the Pakistani state to a point where it is seem as a ‘failing if not failed state’ (to use the words of the former ISI chief Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha). Persisting with such disastrous tactics is an invitation to catastrophe.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.