The Taliban attack in Peshawar last week obscures the fact that Pakistan's military has been making progress against the country's militants.
- By Julia ThompsonJulia Thompson is a research associate with the Stimson Center’s South Asia program.
Last Tuesday’s attack on the Army Public School and College in Peshawar was yet another reminder of the overwhelming scale of terrorist violence in Pakistan. At least 141 people were killed — 132 of them children — and scores more were injured. Coming six months into a Pakistani military counterterrorism offensive in North Waziristan, the attack belies the fact that Pakistan has made progress in its anti-militancy efforts. Before this heinous assault on children and their teachers, domestic fatalities due to terrorism, while still high, had in fact been declining, as compared to previous years. The latest attack in Peshawar illustrates the desperation and cruelty of the Pakistani Taliban — also known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — but also how hard it is to protect the innocent, and how a senseless act can render insignificant months of progress.
Without a doubt, terrorism wreaks havoc on Pakistan. The Global Terrorism Index for 2014 ranked Pakistan as the third country “most impacted by terrorism,” behind only Iraq and Afghanistan. And according to data compiled from the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the most comprehensive up-to-date database on terrorism in South Asia, over 10,000 civilians have been killed by terrorist violence in Pakistan since January 2011; more than 1,700 have died in 2014 alone.
While every one of Pakistan’s four provinces has suffered civilian casualties, terrorism does pose a greater threat in certain regions. For example, in 2014, most civilian deaths in Pakistan occurred in Sindh province (41 percent), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (23 percent), and Baluchistan (19 percent). Since 2001, Sindh in particular has been a hotbed of terrorist and sectarian violence and Karachi, the provincial capital, is one of the most violent cities in the world. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — of which Peshawar is the capital — has seen hundreds of deaths from TTP attacks in recent years. And the ongoing Baluch insurgency, along with sectarian violence, such as the Jan. 21 and June 8 bombings of buses of Shiite pilgrims, account for a high number of the deaths in Baluchistan.
The TTP, which published photographs of the Peshawar attackers with their weapons, called last week’s massacre of young children retaliation for Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the Pakistan Army and Air Force’s counterterrorism operation in North Waziristan. This offensive was launched in mid-June after an attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi. According to Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif, the North Waziristan operation has targeted terrorists, be they local or international, of “all hues and colors, [without] any discrimination, whether it is [the] Haqqani network or TTP.” And the Pakistan military reports that the North Waziristan offensive has killed over 1,800 militants since June.
Yet despite the military’s reported success, the Pakistani government has been criticized for its uncoordinated and ineffective counterterrorism efforts. The campaign in North Waziristan in particular has been viewed as long overdue. And though terrorism has long been an issue, the country still lacks a coordinated national counterterrorism strategy: The first draft National Counter Terrorism and Extremism Policy in 13 years was released only last summer, while the National Internal Security Policy approved this February “remains dormant.” And the National Counter Terrorism Authority has been ineffective since its establishment last year.
Though Operation Zarb-e-Azb is the highest profile counterterrorism effort by the Pakistani military in recent months, it is not the only one that has occurred. A large-scale law and order operation in Karachi has resulted in thousands of arrests since September 2013, including those suspected of terrorism. And arrests of suspected militants continue across the country. In September, authorities in Islamabad arrested nine suspected TTP members, and earlier in December, officials announced the arrest of the alleged Karachi-area chief of al Qaeda’s South Asia wing.
Yet it is hard to quantify the success of these counterterrorism operations. One metric that can be instructive though is the number of civilian casualties to occur from terror attacks.
Before the school attack in Peshawar, Pakistan’s internal security forces had been making headway. SATP data show that, nationwide, the number of civilian deaths resulting from terrorism in 2014 is 40 percent lower than the average number of deaths each year from 2011 to 2013 — a marked change. And over the last year, civilian deaths from acts of terrorism decreased by 42 percent. The terrible attack in Peshawar and another spectacular act of terrorism that killed 58 civilians near the Wagah border crossing in November are not representative of the recent progress Pakistan has made in fighting domestic terror.
While 45 percent of the civilian deaths recorded by SATP in 2014 have occurred since July 1, the Peshawar and Wagah attacks account for more than one-quarter of the victims. To put it into even sharper perspective, Tuesday’s attack killed more people than all of the terror attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa from March through November of this year, thus undoing months of apparent progress. The Wagah attack also accounts for Punjab being the only province in Pakistan where civilian deaths have increased — in fact, doubled — from 2013 to 2014.
But while progress has been made, Pakistan still has more work to do. Perhaps now, after the attack in Peshawar, the country will be more unified in fighting terrorism, and in recognizing that the good jihadi/bad jihadi construct is untenable. The TTP are becoming more desperate in the face of systematic progress against them by Pakistan’s armed forces, and their large-scale attacks prove they can still have a devastating impact. More turmoil can be expected, along with an increased tempo of Pakistani military operations. Yet though recent events prove that a large, senseless attack can render insignificant even sustained progress from counterterrorism efforts, they shouldn’t dissuade Pakistan from continuing to move forward against its internal threats.
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images