The Taliban’s attack on an airbase near Peshawar highlights positive and negative indicators of the military’s war on extremists.
Analyzing the terrorist attack on the Badaber Air Base requires understanding some indicators. But first, some history.
Badaber, a defunct facility, lies some 7 km south of Peshawar Ring Road, off the Peshawar-Kohat Road. The facility, since long, has been used by Pakistan Air Force as bachelor residential quarters for junior personnel working at the Peshawar airbase. But it has an interesting history.
By 1955, the United States Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency began looking for a site for radio listening stations in ‘West Pakistan’ to monitor Soviet transmissions. It chose Badaber, an aloof, rural site just south of Peshawar. This was to be the station for the 6937th Communications Group or Unit.
Construction for the station started in 1958 after then-President Ayub Khan gave permission and allowed the U.S. to establish the facility on a 10-year lease. Badaber also acted as a communications station for U-2 spy planes flights from Peshawar airbase. At the peak of its operations, there were over 1,000 U.S. personnel housed at the station.
This is how a State Department ‘history’ document describes Badaber. “One may recollect that it answered to many names, accurate and inaccurate: Badaber, USA-60, Peshawar Air Station, USAF Peshawar, ‘the missile site,’ ‘the U-2 base,’ simply ‘that place’.”
A U.S. Embassy airgram, “38. Airgram A–550 From the Embassy in Pakistan to the Department of State, October 6, 1969” describes the station under “SUBJECT: USAF Communications Station, Peshawar, REF: Ankara for Ambassador Handley, Tehran for Minister Thacher, London for Minister Hughes, USAFI for Mr. Hilbert, CIA for Mr. Sheldon, NSA for General CARTER, USAFSS, DOD/ISA:
Born: Peshawar, July 17, 1959
Died: Peshawar, July 17, 1969 Interred: Peshawar, February 28, 1970
Time has laid his hand
Upon my heart, gently, not smiting it, But as a harper lays his open palm
Upon his harp, to deaden its vibrations.
Longfellow, The Golden Legend.”
But much before the Station died and was interred, it came on the radar of the Soviet Union when the Soviets downed a U-2 piloted by Capt. Gary Powers and captured Powers. Khrushchev is reported to have encircled Peshawar on the map and threatened to strike the city. That greatly helped douse Islamabad’s enthusiasm to allow the station to work as a SIGINT post and communications center for U-2 flights from Peshawar airbase.
Ironically, however, the place was used again by the CIA, during the ‘80s, as a training facility for Afghan and other mujahideen fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. According to some accounts it was also used as an internment center for Soviet prisoners.
Since 2008, however, the entire area south of Peshawar on the Peshawar-Kohat Road, abutting in the west and south the Bara tehsil of Khyber Agency has become dangerous and has witnessed multiple attacks in and around Badaber and Mattani.
That the terrorists selected this site for the Friday attack is interesting.
Firstly, it is a soft target, lying in a Vulnerable Area (VA). Secondly, it houses personnel from the PAF. Thirdly, the residential quarters do not have high security. Fourthly, given the location and proximity to the tribal area, ingress is easy. Fifthly, the objective seemed to be to kill as many PAF personnel as possible.
The attack plan and the objective give us positive and negative indicators.
Plus: the choice of the target shows the capacity of terrorist groups to mount attacks on high-value, high-security VAs has depleted. Further, by TTP’s own admission it sent 14 terrorists for this operation. Official figures put the number of killed terrorists at 13. This is a large force compared to what we have seen in the past where lesser numbers were sent in to attack high-value, high-security targets. Most of those attacks took high toll of human life and also managed to destroy important equipment and platforms.
While the attack has managed to kill 16 defenseless men offering their morning prayer—and one officer during the ensuring siege—the inability of the attackers to do more damage or fight more effectively shows that recent operations have managed to arrest or kill the groups’ better-trained cadres.
From the positioning of the bodies of the deceased terrorists it appears that they were not as highly trained as the ones that mounted previous attacks. Some were caught in the open, which shows a lesser ability to use the ground to their advantage. They also appear to have either panicked when the firefight started or violated the buddy-pair rule, important in such encounters. My assessment is of course based on television footage.
Interestingly enough, while some of them—if not all—were wearing IED belts, none could explode them. Was it fear? Was it lack of training? Less confidence in a firefight? Questions abound.
Minus: despite losses, the terrorist groups retain the capacity to attack soft targets. In fact, given capacity degradation, future attacks will engage soft targets. That means more civilian casualties. They know that the state cannot safeguard every building. Their plans will factor that in. This means the security forces and intelligence agencies will have to be more vigilant in preempting such plans. This also means, far from euphoric voices about scoring a final victory over terrorism, that we have to accept, and live with, many more such attacks in the future.
A good benchmark of success in a war among the peoples will be our ability to deny these groups the possibility of successfully mounting big, spectacular attacks. In other words, if, over the next few years, we can live with this curse as a diabetic case, we will have done well.
That said, given the successes the non-state actors are notching in our west, especially in the Middle East, our job in the coming years is likely to become more, not less, difficult.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider