The massacre of more than 100 children at an army-run school in Peshawar has highlighted the continued vulnerability of Pakistan’s civilians to ruthless acts by the local Taliban in retaliation to military operations against the extremist group. An attack that may well rank as the most distressing, even by the morbid standards of a country scarred by repeated extremist atrocities over the past decade, has exposed not only security weaknesses, but also a Pakistani political leadership distracted by partisan infighting.
Responsibility for the attack was immediately claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, also known by the acronym TTP — an umbrella organization of local extremist groups inspired by, but separate from, its Afghan allies of the same name.
The TTP’s base is in the Pashtun heartland of northwestern Pakistan, where it has at various points controlled large swathes of territory that abuts the Afghanistan border. The Afghan Taliban has been nurtured over the years by Pakistan’s security services — the group’s leadership is said to be based in the Pakistani city of Quetta — and it has always avoided challenging authorities in Islamabad. This was underscored by its quick condemnation of Tuesday's attack, which it called "against the principals of Afghan Taliban." But the TTP, while backing the Afghan Taliban’s fight against the U.S.-led NATO forces, has waged its own war against the Pakistani state.
Although the Pakistani military has at various points over the past decade negotiated cease-fires with the group, it has also been engaged in a long-term counterinsurgency campaign to contain the extremists. The TTP said Friday’s attack was a response to the Pakistan army’s offensive in North Waziristan, a tribal area along the Afghan border notorious for its heavy concentration of radical fighters from all parts of the world, and a leading contender for the most dangerous place on the planet.
The TTP has long targeted the Pakistan Army, not only on the battlefield, but also in the form of softer targets such as mosques, factories and colleges associated with the military. When under pressure from Army offensives in the tribal areas, it has often responded with attacks on innocent civilians in the apparent hope of tilting public opinion against military action by raising the human cost to Pakistani society and highlighting the state’s inability to protect its citizens. “We targeted the school because the army targets our families,” a Taliban spokesman told Reuters. “We want them to feel our pain.”
Targeting the Peshawar school also jibes with the movement’s well-established hatred of secular education, echoing the view of the Nigerian extremist Boko Haram movement that schools are sites of western-inspired decadence. Over the past seven years, Taliban forces have destroyed thousands of schools and colleges — many of them in Swat Valley, once home to Nobel Peace Prize winning education activist Malala Yousufzai.
As the latest attack was still underway, Malala — herself a victim of Taliban violence against school children — expressed her horror. “I am heartbroken by this senseless and cold-blooded act of terror in Peshawar that is unfolding before us,” she said in a statement. “I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters – but we will never be defeated.”
But her enemies seem to be trying to send the same defiant message, in the grizzliest possible way.
Peshawar is the capital of the northwest province of Khyber-Pakthunkhwa, and has since 2013 been ruled by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (“Movement for Justice”) party of Imran Khan. The former cricket captain and his allies have long opposed military action against the Taliban, arguing that it would only invite further terror attacks. Their critics, of whom there are many, accuse them of appeasing the TTP with peace deals that the militants inevitably break, while using the time and space to further entrench themselves.
Despite the raging battle between the army and the TTP since the summer, Pakistan has been distracted by political protests. Khan believes that last year’s elections were rigged to deny him victory — a claim denied by the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Election observers recorded irregularities, but accepted that Sharif had nonetheless won a decisive victory. That prompted Khan to mount a series of rallies and protests in an attempt to bring down the Sharif government.
A day before the Peshawar massacre, Khan was in the eastern city of Lahore, where his party supporters attempted to “lock down” Pakistan’s second largest city. They succeeded in some parts. In others, they were reported to have blocked ambulances from passing, burnt tires, and harassed journalists. Khan had been preparing to mount further protests until the Peshawar tragedy prompted three days of national mourning.
The massacre throws an unflattering light on what are perceived by many to be self-interested power struggles of politicians at a time when so much of the population remains vulnerable to attacks by extremists. Khan has faced criticism for neglecting the governance of the province his party rules, indulging the Taliban and failing to act against them, and promoting political instability amid a serious security threat.
Sharif, like other politicians, issued a stout condemnation of the attackers. He said his government would press on with its support for the army’s efforts in North Waziristan. “We will continue our struggle to completely eradicate militancy,” he told reporters upon reaching Peshawar. But doubts are being cast on the prime minister’s ability to handle the crisis, given how much his power has waned in recent months. Some Pakistani television news channels appeared to be seizing the occasion to beckon the military to assume a tighter grip on governance.
Sharif’s first response has been to call a conference of all of Pakistan’s national political parties. It isn’t clear why such an event is needed when parliament is supposed to represent the country’s elected politicians. In the past, such conferences have served to demonstrate that the government is reacting to events, but nothing has come of them.
The latest tragedy might prompt something different. December 16th is a day that has long been marked in Pakistan as a day of mourning — it was on this day, in 1971, when half the country was lost after Pakistan’s defeat to India in a conflict that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Now, some are warning that unless Pakistan’s political and religious leaders set aside their petty rivalries and unite behind a clear, zero-tolerance policy for those who kill children, they could enter history with the same notoriety as the generals deemed responsible for the country’s most humiliating military defeat.