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VIEW: An Inconvenient Truth — According To A Little Bird —by Afrah Jamal

I've already acknowledged the bravery of our men in 'You Can't Handle The Truth'....

First Published in Daily Times / Saturday, June 04, 2011

Some new information surfaced immediately after I hit the send button on my first piece ‘You Can’t Handle The Truth?’ (Daily Times, May 30, 2011) — information that casts new light on the events of May 22, 2011 when an indeterminate number of men stormed a naval airbase and targeted its prized assets. I say indeterminate because none of the officials seem to agree on a number.

This new information holds answers to some key questions — motive (why target the Navy?), the mystery surrounding the downgraded number of attackers (not 12) and determining who was really responsible for security on that fateful day when a surgical strike paralysed an entire base. Incidentally, it could be a brief extension of the same light the slain journalist, Saleem Shahzad, was trying to shine on the PNS Mehran tragedy.

A recent headline, ‘Navy blames PAF for security lapse,’ may have deflected some criticism from the Navy but the death of Saleem Shahzad has pushed them right back into the unforgiving glare of the media spotlight. There is more to the Mehran disaster than meets the eye.

It began when a Navy man was court-martialled when his ties to an extremist faction were ‘discovered’. His ‘friends’ warned the Navy against taking further action against the traitor, adding that they would rue the day. It was a very specific threat and aircraft were mentioned.

Now this version of events matches, to a degree, a report published by Saleem Shahzad who recently broke a story in Asia Times Online, exposing “sizeable al Qaeda infiltration within the Navy’s ranks” — only his analysis of the PNS Mehran saga goes deeper. It also provides a motive for these attacks, which he claims were “a reaction to massive internal crackdowns on al Qaeda affiliates within the Navy.

Pursuing this line of inquiry can be hazardous for the health. Yet, the presence of potential al Qaeda loyalists within the Navy necessitates a re-examination of the ‘breach’ story. Two days after this report, Mr Shahzad disappeared and his subsequent death has given his final words added weight. The Pakistan Navy, which is currently in the process of exorcising its demons, took a bold stand against extremism and, as a consequence, has suffered from a serious blowback. Both these versions lean heavily towards an al Qaeda hit, and bolster the inside job theory. One of them holds the Navy accountable for its actions or lack thereof in this matter.

The brave men who died that day were facing multiple challenges. The first perimeter was breached not by four, six or 12 but by more than a dozen attackers. The first breach, as the Navy keeps insisting, was in the portion that fell under the PAF jurisdiction and hence was their responsibility.

In the Navy’s own words: “They were prepared but not specifically for Mehran.” People may well ask, why ever not? According to a report, there were more than 30 aircraft in the naval compound that day. Airbases generally have three layers of ground defences — the outer ring (walls/barbed wires/lights/cameras covering the entire outer perimeter), the inner ring (armed patrols, dogs, fortified bunkers) and, finally, point defence (each armed guard defending an individual aircraft). After the first line was ostensibly breached, was the second line in place? There is no mention of guards amongst the deceased. At what stage did the point defence guards spring into action?

The Navy had been forewarned, yet it was not forearmed. The bird has pointed to a strong likelihood of this being an ambush led by 20 or so men, some of whom might have been renegades from within the naval ranks. It is a damning number that squares with the odd behaviour of the prime minister who, when pressed on disclosing the true figure, mysteriously declared that some things cannot be shared with the media. That and the fact that a Navy man initially registered an FIR against 12 people — a Freudian slip perhaps?

One can see why the Navy has been hesitant in owning up to this as it would mean that a large number escaped or melted back into the ranks. Either way, this has been a major setback. The presence of a rift within begs the question of whether any amount of defensive measures can withstand an attack that comes from inside? This new knowledge gives rise to a new set of fears — fears that military men might want to address quickly.

They might also want to take a look at official naval accounts, which have done nothing for their image: “The terrorists were so well-trained in guerrilla tactics at night that they remained unharmed despite thousands of bullets being fired at them by naval and allied forces.” There is more: “For the sake of your imagination, I would say it was such an intense, swift, well-trained, and precise attack worthy of famous Hollywood movies such as Rambo.” One is tempted to quote another Hollywood flick (Thor): “You made my men look like minimum wage mall cops.”

Granted, May 22nd was not our finest hour. Yet the people do not seek to pull down their defenders for sport nor do they doubt their resolve. Saleem Shahzad may have been viewed as someone who dared to encroach upon sacred turf (national security) but his quest to identify major faultlines within institutions once thought to be invincible could only lead to ‘better security and introspection’ as someone wisely pointed out.

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