A Clash of Narratives Over Mianwali Airbase Attack — TBP Report

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In the early hours of November 4, 2023, an air force training base in Pakistan’s Mianwali area became the stage for a militant attack that thrust the country’s security vulnerabilities into the spotlight.

The events of that morning ended with the Pakistani military declaring a swift and decisive repulsion. Yet, emerging counter-narratives, intertwined with the complex history of such attacks, have sparked intense scrutiny over the transparency and veracity of the information released by Pakistani authorities.

ISPR and Pakistan’s Official Account:

The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) promptly issued a statement following the attack, commending the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) personnel for their vigilance and preparedness. Military officials reported that the base was targeted around 3 a.m., with assailants attempting entry by scaling a wall.

By midday, the official statement claimed all nine attackers had been neutralized. The ISPR confirmed no casualties among the base’s personnel and reported minor damage to three non-operational aircraft. “The swift and effective response by the troops foiled the attack, ensuring the safety and security of personnel and assets,” the military asserted.

According to the ISPR, “Demonstrating extraordinary courage and timely response, three terrorists were killed before they could enter the premises, while during the attack, three aircraft and a fuel bowser were damaged due to timely and effective action against the remaining terrorists.”

The caretaker Prime Minister, Anwaar ul-Haq Kakar, reinforced this message, stating on social media, “Any attempt to undermine our security will meet with unwavering resistance.” However, ISPR’s account was soon met with skepticism. Independent analysts began to challenge the narrative, and footage purportedly from the militants surfaced, suggesting a different version of the events.

Contrasting Narratives and Independent Insights:

The official narrative from the ISPR depicted the Mianwali Air Base attack as a foiled assault, with minimal impact on the facility’s operational capabilities. In stark contrast, the attacking group, Tehreek-e-Jihad Pakistan (TJP), provided a highly detailed account that claimed extensive damage and loss of life.

In a media statement, The TJP said their fighters, under the command of Maulvi Muhammad bin Qasim, launched a successful raid on the airbase at around two o’clock in the morning. They claimed to have faced no resistance as they entered the base, allegedly destroying two compounds and annihilating nearly 40 aircraft. The group also claimed to have disabled the radar system and destroyed the base’s oil depot.

The TJP narrative further contended that their fighters then entered the residential compound of the Air Force officers, where they claim to have killed approximately 30 personnel. The account describes a subsequent engagement with the Pakistani Army involving tanks, one of which they claim to have destroyed. The leadership of the operation passed to Qari Salahuddin Ayubi after the initial commander was killed. According to their statement, the encounter with the army and SSG Commandos continued until the early morning, ending with the mujahideen’s death by helicopter shelling.

While the military disputed these claims, independent security analyst Ayesha Siddiqa provided a critical view, suggesting the military was concealing the true extent of the damage and casualties. “Sources I spoke with say the PAF and ISPR are hiding information and the actual loss is 14 aircraft and 35 military personnel,” she reported, reflecting on the capability of the militants and the potential need for improved security measures at such bases.

Additionally, satellite imagery reviewed by The Associated Press revealed damage at the base, raising questions about the scale of the attack and the military’s response. These reports, combined with TJP’s claims, highlight the challenges in accurately reporting and verifying details of such military engagements.

A Pattern of Discrepancies: Recalling Noshki and Panjgur Attacks

The Mianwali Air Force Base assault is not an isolated incident of narrative inconsistency within Pakistan’s military engagements. It draws parallels to the February 2022 Noshki and Panjgur attacks in Balochistan, where the official military reports diverged sharply from accounts provided by independent media and separatist sources.

In those attacks, the Balochistan Liberation Army’s (BLA) Majeed Brigade quickly claimed responsibility, offering a detailed narrative of their operations that alleged heavy military casualties and extensive damage—a stark contrast to the ISPR’s version of events. The BLA’s immediate and specific communication was aimed directly at the public and international observers, offering a sense of transparency that the ISPR’s more measured statements lacked.

This divergence presented a challenge to the international media in reporting the conflict. Faced with the ISPR’s generalized and vague statements, journalists often turned to the BLA’s detailed accounts for information, potentially lending greater exposure and credibility to their perspective.

Such historical inconsistencies set a precedent that may influence how current and future military engagements are perceived. The credibility of the ISPR’s communications is at stake if it does not address this pattern of discrepancy. Without a shift toward more detailed and accurate reporting, the ISPR risks a further erosion of its standing as a reliable information source.

Broader Security Context: The Imperative for Accurate Reporting

Pakistan’s security situation is showing signs of significant strain, evidenced by a surge in armed attacks across the country. The Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies has highlighted a significant escalation, with August 2023 seeing the highest number of attacks since November 2014.

This escalating pattern of militancy is underlined by several high-profile attacks since the beginning of November. Notably, an ambush in Balochistan’s Gwadar district last Friday resulted in the deaths of 14 Pakistani soldiers. The Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) claimed responsibility, demonstrating their capabilities and resolve.

On Monday, the situation further intensified when Pakistani forces encountered militants in the northwestern Tirah area. The ensuing shootout left four soldiers and three insurgents dead, including Lt. Col. Muhammad Hassan Haider. The Dera Ismail Khan region also witnessed four separate attacks over a span of three days, indicative of a rise in coordinated insurgent activities.

In response to these escalating attacks, authorities have reportedly increased security measures at military and other sensitive installations, a move confirmed by security officials who also highlighted the seriousness of the intelligence reports they have received.

The unfolding situation suggests that further attacks may be imminent. Amidst this backdrop, the ISPR’s reporting methods have been called into question. The pattern of reporting from the ISPR—often seen as minimizing the impact of such attacks—has led to public doubt and criticism. The lack of comprehensive and transparent accounts from the ISPR fosters a vacuum where insurgent narratives, at times more detailed and seemingly forthright, are gaining attention and potentially credibility, both domestically and internationally.

The ISPR’s pattern of reporting, particularly in response to the sophisticated and coordinated militant attacks, has faced criticism for delivering narratives that contradict not only independent reports but also visible evidence. The sanitized narratives offered by the ISPR are perceived as an attempt to maintain a façade of control and security, despite contradictory evidence from the ground.

As a result, the ISPR’s credibility as an information source is increasingly under scrutiny. There is a growing consensus that if the ISPR persists in this manner, the public and the international media may deem insurgent or independent accounts to be a more accurate reflection of the on-ground realities.

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