Taliban at the Airport: After Karachi Attack, Mobilizing Pakistan with a Lesson from Sri Lanka

Bashir Osman's Photography via Getty Images

SriLankan Airlines Flight UL 183 was cancelled Monday.

The flight normally runs at 1 p.m. from Colombo to Karachi, landing on sizzling tarmac in the heat of a Pakistani afternoon.

On June 9, however, the destination that SriLankan's passengers wanted to reach was recovering from a siege. Instead of welcoming travelers, Jinnah International Airport spent the night of 8-9 June playing host to a battle in which 37 people -- including security personnel, workers for Pakistan International Airlines, cargo loaders who sought refuge in a cold storage chamber and suffocated, and 12 attackers linked with the Pakistani Taliban -- died.

The attack was a sharp, jarring reminder of the meager protection the Pakistani state now offers to its most valuable national assets. Yes, the national security apparatus triumphed in the end. It kept the vast majority of civilians safe. But that victory, lauded as it has been in the Pakistani media, doesn't make the attack or the lapse in security that enabled it any less real.

Many Pakistanis of privilege stayed up late to follow the crisis at the airport. This time, the Taliban's target wasn't in a remote agency by the Afghan border -- it was a site that hordes of Pakistanis from across the country pass through each day, a site that those of us with means are familiar with. We were paying more attention than ever before.

(Remember, of course, how relative 'privilege' is. I do not mean oligarchs in mansions -- though the country has its fair share. Those with some privilege in Pakistan are those who can afford domestic flights, who have a reliable electricity supply and a television set and can therefore watch the news, and who have the education and web connection to tap into the Pakistani Twitterverse. This is a country in which the circumstances of your birth literally determine whether you can know or appreciate that your nation's major link with the outside world is burning.)

Amid the chaos, the mourning, the platitudes about the Army, and the tweeted fantasies of a full-scale state offensive against the Taliban, the SriLankan flight didn't make the news. It was simply one of dozens of disrupted journeys.

But there's an important reason why Pakistan should look to Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the attack: history.

On July 24, 2001, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) stormed Sri Lanka's only civilian airport and its neighbor, the country's largest airbase. Six security personnel and an airport engineer died. So did 13 LTTE cadres.

Reporting from Colombo, Indian journalist Nirupama Subramanian wrote that the attack had dealt "a body blow to the political establishment, to the security forces, to the economy, and to prospects for peace, all at once."

So how was a ceasefire achieved six months later?

In large part because the attack forced Sri Lankans to consider how far-reaching the consequences of a continuous civil war could be. In the weeks that followed, business leaders watched their fears become realities: resorts which once received 100 percent of their bookings from tourists saw that share drop to five percent, and airplane and ship insurers hiked up premiums for vessels visiting the island nation. (Of course, the business elite's realization occurred long after the war had already claimed hundreds of lives and alienated an entire ethnic group.)

Nervous executives decided to found an advocacy group called Sri Lanka First. The group rapidly launched a media campaign to highlight "what the war had cost the country in the last 20 years and what it would continue to cost if we did not end it." The bet it made was that a broad public buy-in would pressure the government to seek peace. By September 19, 2001, Sri Lanka First coordinated a one-million-person peace demonstration, the largest in the nation's history.

Sri Lanka First did not end the civil war. Other changes, including a December 2001 change in government, made the February 2002 ceasefire possible (and that ceasefire itself fell apart by 2004). Yet by enlisting mass support, the group helped develop an environment in which steps towards peace could be well-received and seen as essential.

So no, the response to Sri Lanka's airport attack is not the model for dealing with the Taliban. I do not know what that model is. But I do believe the spirit of Sri Lanka First is something we must emulate in Pakistan. Given that we have spent seven years unable to establish a united front against our nation's internal demons, a campaign to build country-wide support for state action to stem the insurgency -- not a negotiated ceasefire, certainly, for unlike the LTTE, the Taliban will not rest until it controls the entire state -- would do a great deal more than encourage a policy shift. It would set up a basis, and a constituency, for peace. By involving members of Pakistani society who currently believe they have little to no stake in the state's integrity, such a campaign would give the government the moral authority to fight the battle it must conduct to defend this country. All that'll be missing then is something our elected leaders must find within themselves: the will to fight.

At present, when the Taliban scapegoats the Pakistani state as weak in the face of American drones or heartless towards villagers in the Northwest, it can be confident that its message will strike a chord with millions of Pakistanis. Many of us are accustomed to expecting nothing -- not electricity, not water, not health care, not education, not basic safety -- from the state.

What, then, can convince Pakistanis that life will change depending on who runs Islamabad? A message about how and why today's Pakistan would not exist were the Taliban to succeed. 'Pakistan' as represented by an impersonal government is not going to suddenly become overwhelmingly popular. But Pakistan as an idea that still has something to offer, like the elements the Taliban would destroy (creeping steps towards gender equity, tolerance towards minorities, quasi-normal relationships with the rest of the world), is something this nation's public may retain some love for. We do not, today, speak often enough of the truth that we could lose it all. It is time we do so.

As in Sri Lanka, the bearers of this message must be those most disturbed by the airport attacks. I mean here citizens of privilege, citizens who understand what the airport's vulnerability represents for the country's economy, global standing, and continued functioning. We need to use that privilege -- and here I do include the oligarchs -- to articulate our sense of what is at stake, and not just to each other. We must make the case not just online, but on television, on billboards, in conversations, and in ways that most Pakistanis, including the majority that are illiterate and speak no English, can understand.

So I locate responsibility not just in Islamabad but in each Pakistani who understands the importance of this nation's struggle for survival against the Taliban. If we do believe something about this country must be defended, now is the time to make our defense. The clock is ticking, and the Taliban's goal -- complete takeover -- has yet to change. Will our tactics?

UPDATE: Taliban gunmen attacked the Airport Security Force academy, 15 minutes drive from the Karachi airport, hours after this post submitted. All flights were again suspended, and two of Karachi's main roads were blocked for hours. The gunmen escaped unharmed. Authorities, meanwhile, were stumped: journalist Gibran Peshimam explained in a tweet that the interior minister was in the midst of telling the National Assembly how successful the response to the initial attack had been when parliamentarians informed him that another attack was ongoing.

CORRECTION: The cancellation of SriLankan Airlines Flight UL 183 occurred on a Monday, not a Sunday. The post has been updated to correct this.