The attack on Pakistan’s Kamra air force base, for which the Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility, is one more sign — as if more were still required — that the country’s enemy lurks within its boundaries. Militants wearing air force uniforms infiltrated the base that is rumoured to house a part of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, in a manner reminiscent of the May 2011 raid at PNS Mehran, and at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi two years earlier. Armed with RPGs and automatic rifles, and wearing suicide vests, they damaged one aircraft at the base and killed at least one air man. Though the militants were eventually eliminated, the question Pakistan should be asking is why no lessons were learnt from the earlier attacks. Only two days ago, in an address at the Kakul Military Academy on Pakistan’s Independence Day, Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said the country needs to fight terrorism and militancy for its own sake. But it is unclear how far the military has addressed the spread of radicalism within its ranks, or if it even sees this as a problem. After the PNS Mehran incident, a journalist who wrote that militants had developed extensive links within the Navy paid with his life; the Pakistani media openly blamed the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence for the killing. In the latest instance too, the attackers seemed to have insider knowledge of the sprawling air base located at Attock in the Punjab province. A Pakistani newspaper had only a few days ago warned that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan was planning a raid on a PAF base, giving August 16 as a possible date, but even with such specific information, the military was caught unawares.
While General Kayani’s remarks and a much-speculated upon military operation in North Waziristan cannot be ruled out as triggers for the attack, the problem really lies with how the Pakistani state continues to see some militants as useful to strategic regional objectives, with others to be tolerated so long as they do not undermine Pakistani interests. The differentiation between “good” and “bad”’ militancy has led to such deep-rooted confusion that it is no longer clear to anyone what those interests are. Otherwise, let alone the Laskhar-e-Taiba that targets India, why should a state and its political class tolerate a group like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, that kills with impunity citizens of a particular religious denomination? Addressing the roots of extremism, militancy and terrorism will need nothing less than an overhaul of the ideological drivers of the Pakistani state — the reliance on an exclusivist reading of Islam, the negation of provincial aspirations by a Punjab-centric establishment, the domination of the military — but the country is clearly not yet ready for this.