On Dec. 16, around midmorning local time, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif presided over a parade for graduating soldiers. Nearly every television station in the country carried the program live: Uniformed army cadets lined up and saluting their chief — an image of order in a chaos-ridden Pakistan.
The unraveling came fast and also unfolded on live television. Seven assailants from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan stormed a military-run school in Peshawar, Pakistan, and killed more than 140 people, most of them children.
Paramedics carried from the compound injured children, all still in the green sweaters of their school uniform. It was the deadliest terrorist attack on a school, one grisly enough to shock and stun a country that has seen 372 bombings this year alone. The Pakistani Taliban took responsibility for the attack, saying it was in retaliation for the army’s ongoing operations in Taliban-controlled areas since July. Survivors said the assailants targeted the children and the wives of army personnel, who worked as teachers at the school.
While unfortunate, the attack should not have surprised. As Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government, the Pakistan army and the United States dither about the best way to defeat extremism, the Taliban have continued their ordered and persistent onslaught, making schools off limits to hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis. In fact, competing actors have transformed schools in Pakistan into backdrops for power plays. Pakistan’s civilian government, embroiled in political battles, is no longer able to guarantee even a modicum of security to ordinary civilians. The Pakistani military has failed to convince the population that the war against the Taliban is fought not at the behest of the U.S. but for Pakistan’s survival. And the United States’ persistent meddling in the country via drone attacks and covert operations has provided Pakistanis with a convenient foil against taking ownership of the fight against extremism. So engrossed in their own, often separate and contradictory strategic calculations, all three actors ignored the telltale signs at Pakistan’s schools.
In short, the attack in Peshawar reveals three things. First, the more than 400 U.S drone attacks since 2004 have done little to diminish the Taliban’s capacity to carry out such operations. Second, the Pakistan army, however strong its resolve, cannot protect soft targets such as schools. Finally, the government of Pakistan is unable to galvanize the public against extremism.
The Peshawar students were targets long before they arrived at school Tuesday morning. Their misfortune was that nobody cared enough to act until it was too late. The latest attack could have been forecast by a look at the numbers. In June the Global Coalition for the Protection of Education Against Attack noted that were nearly 800 such incidents at educational institutions in Pakistan from 2009 to 2012. The threat was building from reports in the months and weeks prior to this attack. On Nov. 17 a grenade exploded at a government high school in Bannu while classes were in session. A day earlier, a school bus was bombed in Khurram Agency, killing an 11-year-old boy and the bus driver. On Nov. 14 a bomb was detonated outside a girls’ school in Charsadda, destroying two classrooms. On Oct. 27, militants blew up a school in Bara Tehsil in Khyber Agency. The list is long and persistent. For the past several years, Pakistan has seen an attack on an educational institution nearly every week.
Assailants who are caught face few consequences. A 2012 report from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where the Taliban are headquartered, shows a mere 4 percent conviction rate for terrorism suspects. In Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, 269 of 365 cases ended with acquittals in the first half of 2012. Acquittals were handed out in cases involving attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team, the burning of NATO oil tankers and the bombing of an Inter-Services Intelligence office. In July 2012 a Karachi court acquitted seven members of the Taliban accused of orchestrating a bomb attack, citing a lack of evidence.
The grotesque attack in Peshawar could bring Pakistanis together to rise above their divisions and make a concerted stand against attacks on their innocent schoolchildren. Sadly, however, if this brief moment for moral reckoning mirrors previous opportunities, it will be followed by grandstanding and confusion. The political wrangling that has come before will return, the Pakistan army will point to its military efforts against extremists and shift blame to failing civilian institutions that are unable to hold terrorists accountable. Sharif’s government, while condemning extremism, will likely to continue to allow leaders of extremist groups to roam free and eventually, as the memories of attacks wane, champion negotiations with the very extremist groups responsible for them, in self-serving efforts to accrue political dividends. And in the midst of all this sound and fury, the U.S. will likely continue to champion a policy that sees drone attacks as useful, ignoring for the sake of petty victories in individual skirmishes the loss of the war for Pakistani hearts and minds.
Military solutions have failed to stem the tide of Taliban attacks. There exists no unified national front to counter the Taliban’s ambitions. And when the initial shock of Tuesday’s grisly attack wears away, Pakistanis will once again stand divided and confused on how to end the war between education and extremism. In a statement on Wednesday, Sharif said there would be no more distinction between “good” and “bad” Taliban and called on Pakistanis to unite against the menace of terrorism. His words are slight solace in troubled times. I hope the extent of the carnage and the unprecedented horror in Peshawar will help ensure that the future will be different.