On Jan. 20, gunmen wearing suicide vests killed 21 people, mostly students, at Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, Pakistan. A splinter group of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility and vowed to unleash an unrelenting assault against “schools, colleges and universities across Pakistan, as these are the foundations that produce apostates.” It said that these “apostates” would become Pakistan’s parliamentarians, lawyers and military leaders.
After the threats, some schools and universities were closed. The All Pakistan Private Schools Federation threatened to remain closed unless the government took concrete steps to improve security. Authorities acknowledge that they cannot protect all schools. There are more than 64,000 schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (the most affected province in terms of terrorist attacks in recent years) alone and only 68,000 police officers. To fill the gap, some schools have allowed schoolteachers to carry weapons.
The attack calls into question the progress of Pakistan’s “war on terrorism.” The military operations have had some success in recent years. Terrorist attacks have gone down significantly, and access to polio vaccinations and overall security have improved. But Islamabad is losing the ideology war. The government’s reluctance to hold clerics who preach extremism to account for propagandizing hate and inciting sectarianism has exacerbated fears of school attacks and emboldened the terrorists.
The Charsadda attack came just over a year after the assault on the Army Public School in Peshawar, on Dec. 16, 2014, which killed more than 140 students and four teachers. Militants have long targeted educational institutions in Pakistan, with few consequences, but the Peshawar attack triggered swift public outrage and government action.
Since 1970, Pakistan has had the most terrorist attacks on educational institutions in the world as well as the most people killed (450) in such attacks. Yet there was a short reprieve, a 70 percent decrease in attacks from the end of 2014 to September 2015, accompanied by an increased sense of security among ordinary Pakistanis. According to an Institute for Public Opinion Research poll conducted from March 20 to April 8, 2015, 62 percent of respondents said they felt safer in the country after the start of operation Zarb-e-Azab in June 2014. And up to 47 percent of respondents from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa said they felt “very safe.”
Pakistan is slowly moving toward a stable democracy. Despite Taliban attacks and intimidation of supporters of progressive political parties, the group failed to keep voters at home in the May 2013 elections. For the first time in its history, Pakistan had a peaceful transfer of power from one civilian government to another. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz has seen subsequent victories in local elections despite stiff opposition and security threats.
There are positive developments in other areas as well. Although Pakistan is one of two countries that have yet to eradicate polio, it has seen a significant decrease in the number of new cases. Only 16 cases were reported in its federally administered tribal areas in 2015, compared with 179 cases in 2014. Even in areas dominated by terrorist activities, the proportion of children who did not have access to polio vaccinations fell from 31 percent in 2014 to 2 percent in 2015.
Attacks on educational institutions, however, could reverse this progress. “We are losing the psychological war against terrorism,” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar said last month in the wake of the Charsadda assault. He spoke out against school closings and called on critics to stop propagating fear, which he said plays into the hands of terrorists.
The National Action Plan forbids hate speech that incites violence and sectarianism, but civil society groups and the opposition have criticized Sharif’s government for failing to implement the plan. Sen. Farhatullah Babar, an opposition lawmaker from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has called the plan’s implementation “nothing but abysmal.” Pakistan’s Supreme Court Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja refers to it as “a big joke.”
The government has closed down 180 madrassas and 120 associated bank accounts, but some clerics continue to preach hate with impunity. Outlawed groups often re-form under different names. Controversial clerics are routinely released without conviction or acquitted because of a lack of evidence.
There is no cleric more controversial than Maulana Mohammad Abdul Aziz, who is known for his links to Al-Qaeda and the TTP. Yet he still runs seminaries in Punjab province. His schools boast more than 5,000 students from the region. In 2014 his girls-only religious school, Jamia Hafsa, named a library after Osama bin Laden, venerating him as a martyr. In December 2014 a group of his students pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, inviting them to strike the Pakistani state and avenge a 2007 attack on their seminary.
Abdul Aziz continues to openly challenge the state and even tried to justify the Peshawar attack in 2014 on national media. Authorities recently suspended cellular service in parts of Islamabad to prevent him from disseminating fiery sermons via phone from a mosque there. That is not enough. Pakistan must make tough choices if it wants to win the ideological and psychological battle against terrorism. It must start by reining in radical clerics, who are indoctrinating a young generation of Pakistanis. This can be done via genuine implementation of the National Action Plan.
Pakistan cannot win this fight alone. The TTP commanders in the Charsadda attack were traced to Afghanistan, as was the group that conducted the Peshawar assault. Sharif has asked Afghanistan to help track and bring them to justice. In a promising move, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was warmly welcomed in Islamabad in December for a conference on regional economic and security cooperation. Such cooperation is crucial to reverse the Taliban’s gains, but Pakistan must not neglect the battle for the heart and minds of its citizens.