The day the Soviet Army marched into Afghanistan in the winter of 1979, supposedly to prop up a regional ally, little did anyone realize that neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan would ever be the same again. The easy availability of arms and drugs transformed the region in ways that were previously hard to imagine. Pakistan was particularly hard hit since it’s soil, apart from hosting the millions of Afghans who sought refuge, was used for imparting military training to the Mujahideen along with generous dabs of radical jihadi indoctrination.
The subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan, in the wake of the horrendous terrorist act of 9/11, forced the Al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants into the mountainous border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pakistan Army is now not only engaged in military operations in the tribal areas of South Waziristan, Bajaur, Orakzai, Kurram, Khyber and Mohmand but is also visibly present in adjacent areas like Swat, Dir and Malakund.
The Pakistan Navy was also eager to do it’s bit in containing the spectre of terrorism and when an opportunity came along, it didn’t hesitate to join the coalition of the willing. Combined Task force 150 had been established at the outset of Operation Enduring Freedom to conduct Maritime Security Operations in the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The presence of a PN warship in its midst has virtually been a permanent feature for the past seven years.
The only major out-of-area ops undertaken by the Pakistan Navy in the recent past was the humanitarian assistance rendered by four of its warships in the wake of the worst-ever tsunami to hit the region in December 2004. PN Ships TARIQ and NASR were already at Male when the tsunami struck and thus were in a position to respond immediately to the relief effort underway. Two other warships PNS MOAWIN and PNS KHAIBAR were dispatched soon after on 5 Jan 2005 to Sri Lanka and onward to Indonesia.
Battling terrorism was, however, a different kettle of fish, as the Pakistan Navy soon learned. Not only was the playground a huge one, the challenges emanating therefrom were equally daunting. TF 150s Area of Responsibility (AoR) alone encompassed more than two million sq miles and included three important bodies of water, namely the North Arabian Sea / Gulf of Oman, the Gulf of Aden / Horn of Africa and the Red Sea. Along with the dense maritime traffic encountered, all manner of threats lurked beneath the surface, the most palpable being drug-smuggling, human trafficking and piracy.
TF 150 had been set up for the purpose of countering extremism and terrorism in the maritime domain. It was the product of a belated realization that maritime areas beyond the Gulf were equally important and deserved to be focussed upon. It envisaged close collaboration between NATO and regional navies for ensuring peace, security and stability. Pakistan Navy was the first amongst the regional navies to join the force and it’s ships as well as it’s Commanders have been actively participating since, in all it’s operations. PN ships transiting the area for exercises or flag-showing elsewhere are also engaged at times in Associated Support Ops.
Maritime Security Operations (MSO) are being extensively conducted in the Maritime area of responsibility. Apart from the routine Baseline Ops, a number of Focussed Operations, aimed at generating specific ripples, are also regularly undertaken. The prime underlying requirement for the Task Force is to remain visible, as a near continuous forward presence in itself, serves as a major deterrence. Considering the handful of ships available for monitoring a relatively huge area, extensive reliance has to be placed on aerial surveillance support as well as real-time intelligence from the Coalition Intelligence Fusion Cell (CIFC), both of which are forthcoming and effective.
Despite it’s rather limited operational involvement, comparatively speaking, the Pakistan Navy has been entrusted with Command and Control responsibilities of TF 150 a number of times since 2006, with durations stretching from 4 to 7 months. All in all, the experience gained, both from Command and Ship perspective, is invaluable. Apart from regular interactions with the military Commands of the nearly 20 countries represented in the naval deployment under the umbrella of USNAVCENT, the PN Commander and his staff keep in touch with their regional counterparts. Pakistan Navy’s presence in the region at sea and on shore has brought it closer to its regional comrades and enabled it to gain an unique insight into the diverse societies and cultural mores of the respective countries.
It is apparent that illegal activities like drug smuggling, human trafficking and piracy have a linkage with terrorism, in that the exorbitant amounts of money generated can be used to fund and stoke extremism and terrorism. It was but natural for the ships of TF 150 to keep a vigilant lookout and maintain liaison with the concerned authorities to keep such illicit trading in check.
Piracy off Somalia stems from poverty, deprivation, depleting opportunities and a lingering sense of injustice, more or less the same factors that keep adding foot soldiers to the forces of terrorism. It has been widely accepted that the local fishermen, seeing their sources of livelihood wither away through extensive poaching and toxic-waste dumping by foreign vessels off the coast of Somalia, turned their guns first on those violating their waters and then went on to the profitable enterprise of piracy. With each passing year, attacks by pirates are becoming more bold and brazen, in terms of range, frequency and technique.
With the spectre of piracy assuming menacing proportions, more and more countries stepped forward to defend their interests. CTF 150 initially diverted some ships and aircraft to counter this threat. It subsequently established a maritime corridor through the Gulf of Aden, known as a Maritime Security Patrol Area (MSPA), on 22 August 2008, through which merchantmen were provided safe passage.
It was only on 8 January 2009 that the Coalition Maritime Forces Headquarters in Bahrain created a dedicated Task Force 151, comprising ships and aircraft of over 20 countries, to aid the international drive against this menace. This was just as well, since CTF 150 did not enjoy an anti-piracy ops mandate. Besides, it opened the way for countries like Singapore, South Korea and Japan that were averse to anti-terrorism tasks, to now join this new task force with vigour. The Government of Pakistan showed no hesitation in agreeing to the periodical participation of a PN warship in anti-piracy operations.
By the time the first PN ship PNS BADR commenced it’s anti-piracy deployment on 29 June 2009 in the Horn of Africa, no Pakistani vessel as such had reportedly been targeted by the pirates. It was only five months later, 5 December 2009 to be precise, that the first Pakistani-flagged fishing vessel M V Shahbaig, with a crew of 29, was seized 320 NM east of Socotra Island. Shahbaig was believed to have then been used as a mothership for the hijacking of a more lucrative target, the MV Asian Glory, carrying 2300 vehicles. Shahbaig was subsequently found abandoned 900 NM north of Seychelles, by an EU Navfor warship FS Surcouf. After having received medical attention, fuel and provisions, M V Shahbaig proceeded towards Pakistan.
The second recorded incident involving Pakistan took place on 7 June 2010, when the Pakistani Captain of a Panama-flagged ship, the MV QSM Dubai, carrying a consignment of sugar to the port of Bosasso in the semi-autonomous Puntland region of NE Somalia, was shot dead by the pirates during a rescue mission.
But the event which really captured the public imagination and hogged the limelight for a number of months was the tribulation of the crew of MV Suez, an Egyptian-owned but Panama-flagged merchant vessel, which was hijacked on 2 August 2010 in the Gulf of Aden. Amongst the 22-member crew, only four, including the ship’s Captain, were Pakistanis.
This is a typical situation where any Navy feels helpless in defending the citizens of it’s state. There are countless Pakistani seafarers sailing in countless merchant vessels of foreign origin, all of whom are difficult to keep track of. Their defence has to be undertaken in the context of a regional maritime grouping which can provide a reasonable, though certainly not fool-proof, cover to all international traffic. Involvement of the Pakistan Navy with the Combined Task Force is paying dividends as a number of attacks on Pakistan-flagged shipping have been successfully thwarted through well-coordinated actions.
Though the capture of MV Suez could not be prevented, the subsequent actions of the Pakistan Navy are worth elaborating. After the crew, along with the vessel, was released by the pirates in mid-June 2011, PNS Babur, a modified Type 21 destroyer, engaged in anti-piracy deployment, escorted it throughout to prevent any further harm befalling the crew. It also managed to thwart an abortive attempt by the Indian Navy destroyer Godavari to needlessly muscle in on the operation.While the vessel under distress was furnished with the much-needed fresh water and provisions, the ship’s medical staff attended to the medical needs of the emaciated crew.
MV Suez was however running low on fuel and facing machinery problems as well. The tug arranged by the ship’s owner to tow the vessel to the nearby Omanese port of Salalah also packed up, forcing the Pakistan Navy to evacuate the crew, initially to PNS Babur, and thereafter to PNS Zulfiquar, a Chinese-built F22 P destroyer, for the return journey to Pakistan. PNS Zulfiquar’s home-coming, with all the 22 crew members of MV Suez safely on board, as well as the grand reception accorded, was heart-warming to say the least and brought tears to many an eye.
The Pakistan Navy has undertaken eight deployments so far, as part of TF 151, with the eighth one currently underway. During such deployments, PN ships focused their energies towards making the International Recommended Traffic Corridor (IRTC) safe for merchantmen to pass through. CTF 151 also planned a series of ‘Supported Transit Missions’ for various groups of merchant vessels in which PN ships took active part. Command of TF 151 was exercised by the Pakistan Navy for a four-month period commencing December 2010, with PN, in the process, becoming the first regional navy to be so honoured.
Pakistan has been made a member of the UN Contact Group on piracy last year, in recognition of its counter piracy efforts. This Contact Group had been formed as a result of UNSC Resolution 1851 of 16 December 2008 for the purpose of better coordinating international efforts against piracy off the Coast of Somalia, in accordance with international law. This specific UNSC Resolution also allowed much greater freedom of action to states and regional organizations, by facilitating interdiction of pirates on Somali territory and their prosecution within the region.
Regional initiatives were not lacking: the consultative meeting of the Red Sea Coastal States in the Arab League on 20 November 2008 and the adoption of the Djibouti Code of Conduct Concerning the Repression of Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in the Western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, agreed to on 29 January 2009, created a favourable regional environment for international enforcement of anti-piracy measures.
Pakistan Navy’s operational association with anti-terrorism and counter piracy task forces serve a dual purpose: in addition to gaining invaluable experience during the process, it furthers Pakistan’s credentials as a responsible state, willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the international community in combating the twin scourges of terrorism and piracy. While displaying it’s political will through the deployment of its warships in support of anti-terrorism and anti-piracy operations, Pakistan continues to endorse and uphold its original stand: that the root causes of terrorism and piracy in the region needs to be addressed if a permanent solution is to be found. This involves an improvement in the law and order situation by facilitating a political dialogue and removal of all genuine grievances of the local people.
Note: This article was published in two parts in the 10th & 11th October 2011 issues of the daily newspaper ‘Pakistan Today’ under the heading ‘Pakistan Navy combating the twin scourges of terrorism and piracy’. It was also published under the same heading in the Sep/Oct 2011 issue of the ‘Navy News’.