Pakistan GHQ Attack: Some Key Questions
The venomous terrorist attack on Islamabad’s Army Headquarters on 10th October has raised some key questions. What is the level of penetration of fundamentalists in the military, how effective are the controls over nuclear weapons, what is the morale of the army after the attack and how autonomous are Punjab based terrorist groups needs answers? The nature of the terrorist attack, the response of the security forces and subsequent reactions raise questions even on survivability of the Pakistani state with the only instrument capable of holding it together the Army seemingly in disarray. A survey of the attack would denote the reasons for this skepticism. The Pakistan Army Headquarters, called as General Head Quarter or GHQ is in the garrison town of Rawalpindi near Mall Road. Rawalpindi garrison is hundred-year old and surrounded by civilian colonies thus it is not possible to close roads passing by the GHQ as per the Army public relations office. A new GHQ building was to come up, but this plan was shelved as the Army was facing resource crunch due to collapse of the Pakistan economy. The location was vulnerable and high security was essential.
The GHQ is heavily guarded with a infantry battalion nominated for the same including some of the key officers residential quarters. There are multiple barriers and vehicles are checked at each barrier. There is no clear run through given and vehicles have to zig zag through the barriers thereby preventing a vehicle borne suicide attack as it happened at the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad earlier.
The attack began shortly before noon on 10 October. The extremists arrived in a white car, opened fire near the GHQ and lobbed five hand grenades at the barrier to force their way into the headquarters. Security forces retaliated with gunfire and killed four terrorists, who were dressed in army uniforms. However simultaneously four to five attackers managed to infiltrate the heavily fortified compound using the diversion of the encounter. It is now known that the total number of attackers was ten. While four were killed in the initial others successfully intruded inside.
Initially it was felt by the security forces that all attackers had been killed in the first wave and there was no information of others having infiltrated and taken hostages. However soon there were sporadic firing from within the HQs it was clear that there were more attackers. This gap in reaction was exploited by the terrorists effectively.
The heavily armed attackers took up positions in the area, hurling grenades and firing sporadically at security forces. The personnel in the HQs and the guards were possibly confused by the attackers’ uniforms.
Having entered the compound the attackers held hostages including security men and civilian employees of the army headquarters. In one room, 22 hostages were clustered with three assailants, one of whom wore a suicide bomb jacket. There were 12 hostages in another room, where another assailant wore a suicide jacket.
Brig. Anwar ul-Haq, the director of security for military intelligence was shot in the first hour of the siege by one of the gunmen who had penetrated his building. When ul-Haq heard shooting, he interrupted a conference he was conducting and went into the corridor with an aide. When he saw a man in military uniform with his back turned to him, the brigadier told him to flee, but instead, the man turned around and shot the brigadier. Lt. Colonel Wasim was the other officer killed.
The Pakistani Army Special Services Group Commandoes launched rescue operation ‘Janbaz’. While negotiations were going on, some personnel were also send with food for the hostages, apparently these were allowed in and therefore could collect information. The commandos first killed the suicide bomber in one room, saving the situation from leading to any huge loss, but other militants in the room fired at two of the commandos, killing them. Then the commandoes attacked the other room to rescue the hostages. As commandos approached the second room, another suicide bomber blew himself up, bringing down the roof and causing injuries among the captives.
The terrorists were wearing suicide jackets and had explosives on them, but they could not detonate them as the commando action was underway. The army commandos caught the attackers injured team leader named Aqeel alias Dr. Usman who is said to be in a critical condition when reports last came in as he had attempted to kill himself but was possibly unable to and has been held for interrogation and extraction of information.
Three hostages were killed in the gun battle and all hostages were freed. Three commandoes also lost their lives. The death toll of security men came to 11. Three hostages were killed by the militants 10 militants were also killed and their leader Aqeel, alias Dr Usman arrested alive but was critically injured.
Reactions were forthcoming from across the globe, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the ghastly terror attack on the Pakistan Army General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi has underlined the terror threat facing Pakistan. Clinton said she wants to point that the attack highlights the continuing threats to the Pakistani government and the ‘very important’ steps the civilian leadership, along with the military, are taking to root out the extremists and prevent violence and direct assaults on the sovereignty of the state. Similarly other heads of states including Indian Prime Minister and the Secretary General of the UN condemned the attack.
That there was a security failure should be apparent since the details about a forthcoming attack had been published on the front page of a national daily several days before it happened. The News International, a local English-language newspaper, had published the details of a report by the interior ministry that an attack on the General Headquarters (GHQ) was imminent. The 5 October report said that fighters from militant outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi - with the support of the Taliban in South Waziristan - were planning such an attack.
The use of security forces' uniforms by militants is a trend which is well established therefore the Army HQ troops should have been aware of the modus operandi but did not react effectively. The attackers were trained in Waziristan in complex terrorist attacks and included mounting both suicide attacks and sophisticated “fidayeen” assaults. The difference in this attack is also that where previously the militants originated from the tribal areas, now there is an increasing representation from the Punjab and other parts of the country. Southern Punjab is emerging as the hot bed of militancy and people and leaders from the North West Frontier Province are claiming that the government should also launch operations in Southern Punjab, thus indicating possible emergence of a regional divide in the country, which could be dangerous.
Well-informed sources in Pakistan say that the intelligence establishment has failed to identify and weed out the pro-jihadi elements in the Armed Forces and the intelligence establishment
This attack has been followed by a series of attacks in the country over the week leading to a large number of casualties of innocent people mostly common citizens and also police and intelligence personnel. This have shaken up the security establishment.
The other issue is the nuclear weapons. How far are these considered secure given that there could be some penetration of the inner or outer ring by fundamentalist elements in the Army will remain a moot question. The Pakistani establishment needs to provide immediate answers to reassure the World.
There is therefore an urgent need for a security blanket over the most vulnerable areas which should be made virtually impenetrable. In the long run identifying and weeding out fundamentalist elements in the security forces is also essential. Is the Pakistani Army up to the challenge and will it do so immediately needs elaboration?
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Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle
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