The South Asia Channel

A Desperate Act by Pakistan’s Taliban

The Pakistani Taliban's attack on a school in Peshawar is not a sign of their strength, but rather of their weakness.

A Pakistani christian girl lights candles for the victims of an attack by Taliban gunmen on an army-run school in Peshawar, in Karachi on December 17, 2014. Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif and Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani vowed to fight "terrorism and extremism" together, a day after Taliban militants killed 148 people at a Pakistani school. AFP PHOTO / Asif HASSAN        (Photo credit should read ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Pakistani christian girl lights candles for the victims of an attack by Taliban gunmen on an army-run school in Peshawar, in Karachi on December 17, 2014. Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif and Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani vowed to fight "terrorism and extremism" together, a day after Taliban militants killed 148 people at a Pakistani school. AFP PHOTO / Asif HASSAN (Photo credit should read ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images)

As the Pakistani nation is mourning Tuesday’s tragedy that killed 132 schoolchildren in the country’s northern city of Peshawar, questions are being raised about the strength and capability of the perpetrators, the Pakistani Taliban or Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and their motives.

In recent months, the Pakistani army claimed that they had killed around 1,100 militants in the ongoing operation in North Waziristan tribal agency near the Afghan border and that the TTP network and organizational structure has been disrupted.

However, Tuesday’s attack is a gory reminder of the fact that the Taliban still exist and are capable of planning and carrying out large scale operations. But does that mean the militant group has regrouped and re-organized their forces to the extent needed to pose a serious threat to the security of the nuclear-armed country?

Of course not. Hitting soft targets such as the Army Public School and indiscriminately killing children holed up in an auditorium hall seems more a sign of weakness and frustration than strength.

The TTP has been showing signs of weakness ever since the killing of its commander, Hakeemullah Mehsud, in a drone strike in November 2013. The elevation of Mullah Fazlullah, a non-tribal Taliban commander, as chief of the network further increased the divisions among different factions within the TTP that finally led to its fragmentation.

And the most serious blow came when the Pakistani army launched the Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan, the last stronghold of the Pakistan-based militants. Notwithstanding the allegations of the selective approach towards the Taliban by the Pakistani army (i.e. singling out the “bad” Taliban and ignoring the “good”), the TTP is the hardest hit militant group so far.

During the peak days of the TTP power from 2007 through 2011, militant commanders were holding large areas under their control and enjoying vast influence. For example, Mullah Fazlullah, the current TTP chief, was running parallel courts in the district of Swat, a tourist favorite in Pakistan. His men had forced out the district administration and even policemen were quitting jobs for fear of Fazlullah-led militants.

Hakimullah Mehsud, on the other hand, was the unchallenged warlord in South Waziristan and Orakzai tribal districts while Maulvi Faqir Muhammad was holding areas in Bajaur. In the same token, Mangal Bagh, a non-TTP commander, was running his fiefdom less than 12 miles away from the city of Peshawar in Khyber tribal agency. There, he ran private jails, forced politicians and businessmen to pay him money for protection, and also carried out public executions.

However, since 2009, the TTP network had received several blows in FATA as well as settled districts and they are no more in control of any specific area as they used to be in the past. Hence, they are attacking soft targets like the military school.

Divisions, fragmentations and internal disputes have weakened the morale of the TTP mid-ranking commanders and fighters. Further, its leader is currently hiding across the border in Afghanistan, even though the TTP claim Pakistan as their power base and epicenter of their so-called Jihad.

While the TTP spokesman Muhammad Khorasani owned responsibility for the attack and later released a detailed statement in Urdu about its mastermind and the Taliban motive, at least one Pakistani Taliban group, led by Hafiz Gul Bahadar, and the Afghan Taliban condemned the act. Both groups said the attack was an act against Islam.

What was their motive? Revenge. The TTP is seeking revenge for the military operations and if you are to believe the Pakistani army statements, the killing of over one thousand TTP fighters. Warsak Road, as the area where the army school was attacked is known, is housed several other schools where mostly the middle and upper classes of Peshawar and surrounding areas send their children.

Some of the top schools and colleges there include Peshawar Public School, Peshawar Model School, Warsak Model School, Frontier Model School, and Saint Mary’s School. While the Army Public School has better security than the rest in the area,  selection of this site for their attack carries the element of revenge.

In 2009, the Taliban carried out a record number of attacks following the Swat operation, but the military action continued until militants were cleared from the valley. Although Pakistani politicians and analysts on television talk shows usually highlight attacks by the Taliban as a tactic to pressure the government end operations, an operation has never been suspended under pressure from the Taliban in the history of Pakistan.

Indeed, it could have the opposite effect. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rushed to the city of Peshawar soon after the attack, followed by opposition politician and Sharif’s sworn (political) enemy, Imran Khan. Khan has been holding countrywide protests since August 14 asking Sharif to resign due to allegations of vote-rigging in the 2013 general election. The terrorist attack brought the two leaders face to face along with leaders and representatives of almost all mainstream political parties during the All Parties Conference on Dec. 17, called by Sharif to devise a joint strategy against terrorism.

For years, Pakistan military strategists have been accused of nurturing some militant groups for their use in Afghanistan and Indian Kashmir while bashing others such as the TTP, al-Qaeda and IMU, who are carrying out attacks inside Pakistan.

Since the launch of the Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan, the Pakistan military’s media wing is aggressively propagating the notion that they have no likes or dislikes and that the army is taking action across the board. However, the majority of the Pakistani intelligentsia and members of the media believe the army is still focused on the strategic depth policy, failing to take action against all militants, particularly the Haqqani Network.

The suspicion has some merit. For years, the Pakistani military has been involved in half-hearted operations that never resulted in elimination of militants. Numerous operations, named  Daraghlam (here I come), Bia Daraghlam (here I come again) and Khwakh Ba De Sham (I will fix you) — all quite dramatic and funny — were conducted from 2007 to present, but all failed to achieve the result of restoring order. This failure, which always resulted in the suffering of the common citizen, weakened people’s trust in the state over a period of time.

But  in a tweet quoting Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif soon after Peshawar school attack, Director General of the military’s media wing ISPR Asim Saleem Bajwa said: “Extremely saddened, our resolve has taken new height. Will continue go after inhuman beasts and their facilitators till their final elimination. They have hit at the heart of the nation, but let me reiterate they can’t in any way diminish the will of this great nation.”In a similar statement during his Washington visit in November, the army chief was quoted as saying that they will not show any mercy to those who played “football with the heads of our soldiers.”

The resolve and resilience of the Pakistani nation — particularly the parents who lost their children in Tuesday’s attack — beg the government and military to go after the masterminds of such attacks and rid of the country of the scourge of terrorism. However, whether the sacrifice of 132 innocent schoolchildren will be enough to move the country’s powerful security establishment to do away with its past policies and treat all terrorist organizations the same will only be seen with time.

Daud Khattak is a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Twitter: @daudkhattak1