Following what was said in the media immediately after the attack on PNS Mehran was exhausting if you were looking for a consistent account of the operation.
The morning after the attack, the English daily Dawn reported that six attackers had entered PNS Mehran and said that four had been killed and two had fled, The Express Tribune said the same; The News differed and said there were only four attackers and all of them had been killed, and Pakistan Today claimed that 10-15 militants had stormed the base. Of course, the matter was further confused a few days later when the FIR filed by navy personnel said there could have been as many as 10-12 attackers. Speculations about who was behind the attack were equally numerous with as many as ten possible backers mentioned in half as many sources — the TTP, Jaish e Mohammad, Baloch Separatists, RAW, the CIA, and ‘elements within the armed forces’ were just some of the names being bandied about.
But what has been most interesting about coverage of the attack on PNS Mehran is the range of opinion it has generated in a short span of time, more so than the May 2 raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. Most news sources and media persons stayed firmly in their usual corners — with government-bashing taking a backseat to military-bashing, for the most part – except when it came to talking about the commandoes, navy officers, firemen and security personnel who lost their lives in the attack. The morning of the operation, readers of The News were greeted by the headline “Four terrorists mocked government might for 16 hours.” An editorial in the same paper mocked the establishment’s attempts to secure peace, but praised lower-level officers for giving their lives for their country. In contrast, Dawn’s editorial after the attacks was more tempered, stating that we needed to “face facts once and for all and stop living in denial … It is unfortunate, but not surprising given the staggeringly delusional outlook of many in this country, that the deadly assault on the PNS Mehran airbase in Karachi has engendered a plethora of conspiracy theories even before the matter has been fully investigated.”
Indeed, conspiracy theories were the order of the day, and there was no better place to air them than the television. The difference being that after this attack, which specifically targeted strategic military assets with cold-blooded precision, even those who usually dismissed conspiracy theories were shaken, and were heard reassessing their positions. At such a time, when Zaid Hamid appeared on Mehr Bokhari’s show on Dunya TV and said the attack was part of a greater Western conspiracy, there can be no doubt that more than a few people watching felt that he had been on the right track all along. “After 9/11, a new war was started to reshape the Middle East …” Hamid railed. “The US and Nato are looking for a new supply route to Afghanistan, an alternate supply route within Pakistan. Just like they have done in Libya, they want to take over the Gwadar port in Pakistan. That is why it is critical for them to incapacitate the Pakistan Navy … In the 21st century, whoever controls the Indian Ocean will control the whole world.”
Similar views were repeated in the Urdu press, with Ikram Sehgal writing in Jang, “The US supported us when they needed a buffer against communism, but after that, didn’t consider us important enough to do anything but pay lip service to us… America has never stuck by its policies regarding Pakistan.” In another publication on the same day, Sehgal pointed a finger at Indian Intelligence agency RAW, as well. The Daily Express, in its editorial the day after the attacks, pointed a finger at elements within the country that could be responsible, even saying that “terrorists have infiltrated the media, too.”
During this time, while the nation was either obsessed with self-flagellation or was busy pointing at ‘external’ elements, foreign reactions were equally interesting. While the foreign press came down hard on Pakistan, Western political leadership softened its stance. UK Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Obama solemnly pledged that Pakistan was not alone in the fight against terrorism, and veteran policymakers like Henry Kissinger said, “We should stop beating up on Pakistan.” Even Indian Defence Minister AK Antony’s response was measured, as he said “Our services are taking all precautions and are ready around the clock … but at the same time we don’t want to overreact.”
It was then left to the foreign press to question the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and much was made of the massive security lapse at PNS Mehran. An article in the Associated Press by Chris Brummitt said, “A serious breach of the security perimeter could lead to calls for a unilateral American move to secure the Muslim world’s only nuclear weapons … while that is unlikely, a scenario that includes more attacks on Pakistani security installations, possibly nuclear ones, is not.” Similarly, articles in The Guardian and The Los Angeles Times talked of how the raid had embarrassed the Pakistani Army.
With all this sombre talk dominating the airwaves and the newspapers, one felt that only a look at the blogosphere could help lighten the debate. Pakistani bloggers didn’t disappoint, with KalaKawa announcing: “I will now present a list of excuses that would have flown better than the one actually used by the PAF … like this — The PAF is acutely aware of the shortage of electricity in our nation. As part of the energy conservation movement we have decided to keep all radars off between 9 pm and 9 am. A replacement plan has been devised though. The Ruet-e-Hilal Committee has been hired all year long now to keep an eye on any intruding vehicles.” The folks at Cafe Pyala threw in their own observations, pointing out that a ‘Colonel
Sahib’ once informed them that the guards posted outside PAF Masroor Base “are not soldiers, just chowkidars … somebody has just given them some uniforms.”
The funniest jokes that
circulated after the attacks, however, mostly had to do with a certain sci-fi trilogy starring a short man with an abysmally loose grasp on sentence structure — perhaps the best we can hope for, then, is that the force be with us all.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 5th, 2011.