A Pakistani man watches as smoke rises after militants launched an assault early Monday morning on Karachi's international airport. RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
A Pakistani man watches as smoke rises after militants launched an assault early Monday morning on Karachi's international airport. RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images

The flames towering over Karachi’s international airport before dawn on Monday made one thing clear: Pakistan’s war on terror extends well beyond the tribal badlands along its border with Afghanistan. That makes the fight much more complicated than it’s often assumed to be. It will require more than troops and tanks to win.

The Pakistani Taliban claimed credit for Monday's deadly assault on the country’s biggest airport, in which 10 militants and 19 security personnel and airport employees were reportedly killed. In recent months, the debate over how to confront the Waziristan-based insurgents has revolved around whether to negotiate a political truce or to crush them with force. Both approaches have failed in the past: Cease-fires have given the militants time and space to regroup, while army offensives have only driven them into Afghanistan or scattered them into Karachi and other cities. Now authorities seem to be hoping to split the movement to isolate its most hard-core wing.

Even when effective, such measures address only part of the problem. By now, Pakistan's militant nexus encompasses many allied groups beyond the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP. Punjab-based Sunni extremist groups have slaughtered minority Shias and Ahmadis while authorities have looked the other way. Just Monday, while cameras were trained on Karachi’s airport, militants in Baluchistan, nearly 300 miles away, killed 23 Shia pilgrims returning from Iran. Ethnic and sectarian attacks in Karachi, the world’s most violent megacity, rose 90 percent last year, causing a record 2,700 casualties. Many of the city’s deadliest gangs claim at least tacit support from local politicians.

Pakistani authorities can no longer afford to draw distinctions between these groups, or between “bad” militants and “good” militants like the Afghan Taliban, who supposedly direct their attacks outside the country. While in some cases extremist groups battle one another for turf and control over lucrative criminal operations, at least as many share resources, intelligence, recruits, funding and training. These networks are now embedded in all of Pakistan’s major cities, and they greatly enhance the TTP’s ability to carry out attacks like Monday’s assault.

Tolerating even some of these groups allows all of them to grow. Cities in particular have become fertile recruiting grounds, as Saudi-funded madrassas and hard-line satellite television stations fuel jihadist ideologies. Rapid urbanization -- Karachi’s population swelled 80 percent in the 2000s, the biggest increase of any city in the world -- has increased the ranks of disaffected, unemployed young men. Already, according to some estimates, the Pakistani Taliban control as much as a third of Karachi, an area that includes some 2.5 million people and accounts for much of the group’s funding.

Pakistan needs to rethink how it conducts this fight. Authorities have thus far treated the problem of urban militancy as an extension of the battle in the tribal areas -- a matter for paramilitary troops with broad, easily abused powers. This has bred resentment and led to allegations of extrajudicial killings, without notably diminishing the militant threat.

A better long-term strategy would be to rejuvenate Pakistan's demoralized and outgunned police forces. Karachi has only one cop for every 600 residents, compared with an average of 1 per 260 internationally. Even that number exaggerates their true strength: Out of 27,000 Karachi police, only perhaps 7,000 are available for deployment at any one time. (Another 9,000 are deputed to protect local politicians and other officials.)

The police also need to be better insulated from political interference. And while their investigative skills can be admirable, they need better resources, including a centralized counterterror data bank that includes voice matching, fingerprinting, DNA analysis and other forensic information. Most of all, they need a clear signal from national political leaders that once-protected militant groups will no longer be tolerated, any more than the TTP is. Only if police are encouraged to go after all extremist groups will they be able to dismantle the networks that have rooted themselves in cities such as Karachi, Lahore and Quetta.

It’s true that this is a war, but the jihadists are no warriors. They are thugs and criminals. It’s time Pakistan treated them as such.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.