As the profile pictures of friends on Facebook went black, most wrote, “The smallest coffins are the heaviest.” Disturbing footage emerging on December 16, as the Pakistani Taliban executed a well-planned attack on a military-run school in Peshawar, leaving 145 dead and scores injured, reminded all that the civilian government had no counter-terrorism strategy to defeat the ideology of militancy. My heart is heavy with anger — not grief alone, but anger — at an attack so senseless.
Helpless school children and their teachers were hunted down in classrooms and an auditorium, and shot. A teenager shot in the chest said he owed his life to his 24-year-old teacher, Afsha Ahmed, burnt alive by the attackers. “She is my hero,” he said. “Her last words to the terrorists were: ‘You must kill me first because I will not see my students’ bodies lying in front of me,’ ” he added.
Those who escaped injured or were rescued have told stories of death. Yet again there was no actionable intelligence and if there had been, why was such information not given to security agencies and an evacuation plan prepared for the school, located in a city with proximity to the conflict-ridden tribal region?
The South Asia Terrorism Portal notes 38 bomb blasts in Peshawar this year, with 87 killed and 307 injured. The State’s unwillingness and its lack of ability to fight terrorism by withdrawing support for militant proxies has become an endless debate. In the West, Pakistan’s failure to act has been attributed to strategic depth machinations meant to increase its influence in Afghanistan post 2014.
However, the Pakistani military high command now recognises internal militancy as the greatest threat to the State as the space for an alternative narrative of peace and tolerance shrinks. Who do we hold accountable for the massacre of bright-eyed children in their green school blazers, learning to become valuable citizens but shot down mercilessly, and committed teachers imparting knowledge with hopes of a better future, only to be burnt alive? Who do we blame in Pakistan for its growing violent extremism?
The Pakistani Taliban and their powerful backers promoting the political usefulness of jihad since the late 80s, or the misplaced priorities of a civilian government that is so entrenched in a political power struggle for survival that it fails to provide the basic services of education, security and human rights? Even if the Pakistani Taliban have momentarily shot themselves in the foot by killing children — how will they explain murdering children is good for religion — there are still hundreds of young, indoctrinated suicide bombers ready for the next assignment.
The Unicef has called this year one of the worst for children, with an estimated 230 million living in countries and areas torn by conflict. When children become subject to unspeakable brutality, it spreads more fear and horror. This attack was reportedly in retaliation to the military operation in the North Waziristan Agency, which began in June, with the military finally fighting militants in the tribal northwest — the jihadi sanctuary for an assortment of militant organisations known for attacking local and international targets.
The traditional ground to the Haqqani Network and other foreign fighters connected loosely to al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and other regional militant groups, fighting militants in North Waziristan, meant that Pakistan was finally looking within, disrupting militant bases and flushing out hardened fighters. But it was seen as too little, too late.
While many crossed into Afghanistan before this offensive, others dispersed into urban centres, not only undermining the success of the operation but importing terror to major cities. And this move allows militant groups to play a destabilising role once the bulk of western combat troops leave Afghanistan. By adopting a selective attitude towards certain militant groups, the Pakistani establishment walks dangerously on a tightrope that can no longer be tailored as secure or predictable.
The attack has demonstrated that the Taliban nexus remains equipped with a fighting force to strike at vulnerable civilian targets, especially institutions associated with the military. Their message: The Peshawar school attack is retribution for striking against terror safe havens and bombings in the tribal region.
The Taliban — as the Afghan Taliban have demonstrated in the past — have shown open hostility towards education, especially for girls, and displeasure when public school curriculums do not propagate Deobandi religious content found rampantly in Pakistan’s religious seminaries. Targeting schools and places of worship not only reveals a disregard for human life but points to political terrorism and militant ideologies as the gravest global threat to nations where children, women or even minorities are not secure.
A report by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland concluded that there had been more attacks on educational institutions in Pakistan in 2012 than in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Turkey and Thailand. Afghanistan, believed to be much more hostile to education, witnessed 23 attacks on schools in 2012.
Since 2010, there have been at least four attacks on school buses in Pakistan — including the one in which Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head in Swat in 2012. Despite her indomitable strength, she broke down when shown her own blood-soaked school uniform on display in Oslo. Earlier this year, 15-year-old Aitazaz Hassan died when he stopped a suicide bomber from entering his school, preventing the attacker from killing students.
Dividing militant groups into good and bad Taliban is not going to stop terrorism in Pakistan as the cost has already proven high for a country that will mourn the Peshawar massacre for decades. Yet again the army will crack down vigorously on Islamist groups and sub-groups, which pose an existential threat.
The solution, however, cannot be found only militarily, but more holistically, through examining the weaknesses of political institutions, security forces and the criminal justice system. Besides making educational and job opportunities accessible, we need to devise ways to stop young men from aligning with militant groups and curb militant financing and propaganda material.
Razeshta Sethna is a journalist in Karachi with the Dawn Media Group
The views expressed by the author are personal