We have not forgotten APS and we will not forget Badaber
The mosque in Badaber was the first mosque I ever prayed at. Eighteen years ago. It is now covered in blood. My father, Air Marshal Riazuddin Shaikh, was Air Commodore at the time. We lived in Badaber for a year and a half. That was when I decided that I wanted to be a pilot. An Air Force fighter pilot, like my father. But it wasn’t very long ago before I realised that I was just not cut from the same cloth these remarkable men and women are made of.
Badaber, since the time I have known, has been a residential area primarily for officers, their families and an important human resource base for the Pakistan Air Force. It was a beautiful base, built by the Americans in 1952, not very large. It consisted of small wooden houses, large pavements, playing grounds, a walking track, a sports complex, a school, a hospital, small shops, small technical units and a mosque. It hosts about 250-300 families.
The biggest threat to this Air Force base was a bee attack. And it was serious – officers would make rounds warning people to stay inside their houses, school teachers were told to make sure the kids remained in their classrooms and older siblings were told to keep an eye on the younger ones. A little boy was critically injured (that was the only instance it ever felt okay to use that word) when a beehive fell next to him and bees swarmed his body. He was taken to the hospital immediately and all preventive measures were put in place. We were not allowed to go to that particular park for weeks until the matter was resolved.
Then came September 18, 2015. But this attack was of a different breed altogether.
The attack took place at Fajr time on Friday; not at midnight, not day time either. There were approximately 20 attackers who breached security at the main gate. They divided themselves into two groups, one of which entered the mosque in which PAF personnel were busy in their ablution rituals in preparations of the prayers, perfectly vulnerable. According to my father who is also a defence analyst, the goal, it seems, was to penetrate into the camp in a sneak attack, eliminate all possible resistance and then take hostages. Hence, the importance of the timing chosen. Bend the forces at their knees. And what better way to do it than to take valuable human resource hostage?
Badaber is located on the outskirts of Peshawar, on Kohat Road with Chamkani, once considered a Taliban stronghold, in close proximity. It would not be farfetched to assume that once these men had breached security and taken control, they would have called upon their comrades to further infiltrate the base and strengthen their hold. They were obviously prepared – they had done this before – at the Army Public School, at Mehran base, at GHQ, at the Karachi airport, and they had succeeded each time.
This was just a residential camp, how difficult could it be? It was a sure shot. But they had not anticipated such a coordinated effort of resistance. The only difference between this attack and some of the ones mentioned earlier was timing. Barring the Peshawar school attack and GHQ, all the other attacks took place at midnight. This gave them enough time to eliminate everything and flee before day light. In this particular incident, my father surmised, that because they entered at Fajr, so close to day light, they may have intended on staying longer.
A few days prior to the attack, the military had been warned that something like this was going to happen – this time against an Air Force installation. A very big hint. Measures were taken, but they probably gave higher priority to protecting those bases housing material assets. And within this groundwork there was a lapse – Badaber. And this loophole proved to be a massive oversight; especially in light of the Peshawar School attack. In that attack, we learnt that the Taliban didn’t care how big or small, how old or young its target was, so long as eliminating it fulfilled their purpose – weaken the military in whatever way possible.
At the heart of this situation, we are left with many puzzling questions. The first one being, why wasn’t Badaber’s security amped up when the warning of the attack was given? The second, more obvious one, why wasn’t the informant of this attack able to provide our intelligence agencies with more information about the whereabouts of the Taliban? Why wasn’t their communication intercepted?
The answer to the first question is quite obvious; the attack was countered and where the Taliban thought of this as another APS moment, the resistance proved that ready or not, the Air Force was capable of putting up a valiant fight. But the question begging to be answered is why aren’t these threats thwarted even when a hint as gigantic as that threat is dropped? Isn’t an ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure? Why is it that the Taliban are so arrogant so as to attack, repeatedly, our military? Again, why wasn’t communication intercepted? If we go by my father’s deductions of this incident, in the event of this attack being successful, and the goal being accomplished, the Taliban would have succeeded in not only bringing our armed forces to its knees, but would have also managed to acquire media coverage they have been starved of. Regrettably.
In the hours, days, following the attack, has the area surrounding Badaber been scoped for remnants of the enemy? Of 20, 14 were killed, where are the rest? Did they have abetters? Inside – possibly. Outside – certainly. Have we gone in to Chamkani and its neighbouring areas? Is there an undercover operation underway that we don’t know about just yet? I hope so. Those who housed them, fed them and equipped them should be held just as accountable. Or do we still believe in the good Taliban and bad Taliban narrative?
Whatever the case may be, those men who defended the Badaber base that day died in service of this nation, and there was one too many deaths. Some of the best memories I have of my life in the Air Force were made in Badaber. It was a home to me and to many other people I know; a little sanctuary where the most frightening thing was the prospect of being stung by a bee. On Friday, the Taliban learnt that Pakistan was not going to give in – that with every attack they have only managed to unite this ideologically divided nation. Our resistance, our counter assault set a new precedent on Friday – we have not forgotten APS and we will not forget Badaber.
Let’s clean up the mess we made so many years ago. And let’s do it across the board. For real, please.
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