The Death Throes of the Pakistani Taliban
Why the brutal attacks in Peshawar have already backfired against the TTP.
The devil showed his face in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Tuesday, when six terrorists attacked an army-run primary and secondary school, killing nearly 150 people, mostly children. Since 2008, Pakistan has been among the world’s top targets of terrorism. But this attack was particularly gruesome. Attackers stalked through the school room by room, pumping bullets into the bodies of small children and teenagers. A teacher who tried to save them was set on fire. The terrorists made no demands. Murder alone, it seems, was the only thing on their minds.
The attacks, perpetrated by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban, were roundly condemned by Pakistan’s politicians, military officials, and civil society members. Leaders from across the globe, including India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, also spoke out against the carnage in Peshawar. Many key jihadi leaders, including Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Hafiz Saeed and Zabihullah Mujahid, the Afghan Taliban’s spokesman, also decried the bloodbath. “We are deeply pained by this tragedy and we stand with the families of the deceased in pain,” Mujahid said. Extremists in Pakistan, it is clear, do not speak with one monolithic voice.
Perhaps the most startling revelation of the Peshawar attacks is that, strategically, the TTP stood to gain little from them. The group has been hammered both by the Pakistani military and defections from within its ranks. And now it has united Pakistanis of all backgrounds and beliefs in revulsion. On Wednesday, Islamabad called for a three-day mourning period. This week, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will also convene a conference of leaders from Pakistan’s major political parties to solidify the country’s commitment to fight terrorism. But this may matter little to the TTP, a group seemingly motivated by a mix of desperation and a lust for revenge against the Pakistani military, as well as Pakistan’s political class.
Over the past year, the TTP has been reduced to a shell of its former self. Founded in December 2007, it was once a formidable umbrella organization uniting scores of Taliban-style groups across Pakistan’s border regions with Afghan jihadis in a war against the Pakistani state. By the spring of 2009, the TTP controlled most of the country’s northwest, holding territory just 60 miles from Islamabad. While two major Pakistani army operations in 2009 managed to repel them from the capital, the TTP proved resilient, thanks in part to the safe havens it had carved out in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area and in parts of Afghanistan.
But last November, the tide against TTP began to turn once again, when a CIA drone attack in North Waziristan killed its second leader, Hakimullah Mehsud. His successor, Fazlullah, failed to assert control of the group — in part because he wasn’t a member of the Mehsud tribe, which spawned the TTP’s first two leaders. In February, ground operations seemed imminent. Instead, the prime minister announced before parliament that the government would begin talks with the TTP. But those deliberations soon reached an impasse and an impatient army decided to begin its military campaign.
Terrorist attacks in Pakistan rose, as did divisions within the TTP. Retired Pakistani generals clamored for operations on news talk shows. In private, the army chief pressed the prime minister to approve ground operations. Ultimately, the military got its way, beginning an air campaign in late winter 2013 that expanded in the spring and forced a reluctant civilian government into launching ground operations against the TTP and other groups in North Waziristan in June. These operations achieved a major tactical victory: They severely weakened the TTP terror machine by denying it the space to operate. Prior to the Peshawar attack, Pakistan was on pace to have its fewest number of terrorism casualties since 2007.
In the process, Pakistan broke the back of the TTP. As the military moved deeper into North Waziristan, the TTP’s internal fissures grew. Umar Khalid Khorasani, an Afghanistan-based leader of the TTP’s Mohmand tribal agency chapter, established a splinter group, the Tehrik-i-Taliban–Jamaat-ul Ahrar (TTP-JA). The Pakistani army and air force kept up their campaign, continuing to hit the TTP and TTP-JA hard through the summer and into the fall. And in recent weeks, the United States has conducted rare drone strikes against TTP and TTP-JA targets inside Afghanistan.
Like a bloodied, weakened beast, the TTP lashed out viciously on Tuesday. In attacking the school, the TTP chose the softest targets in a military cantonment. Some, though not all, of the children came from military families. And so the TTP — indifferent to the blood of thousands of innocents on its own hands — has anointed itself as the avenger of its own collateral damage suffered at the hands of the Pakistani army.
Early reports indicate that the attackers came from all over. Some may have looked Uzbek, suggesting that the attackers may have been at least partially constituted of members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), perhaps the most extreme of the jihadi groups that fled Afghanistan after 9/11 and settled in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Pakistani airstrikes since last winter have hit the IMU particularly hard. And statements by the IMU reflect revulsion not just for the Pakistani military, but also Pakistani society.
Revenge may have motivated another potential accessory to the carnage in Peshawar: the Afghan intelligence service. While there is no evidence linking Afghan intelligence to the attack, leaders of both the TTP and TTP-JA are based in Afghanistan. And Afghan intelligence has provided support to both groups, including in conducting reprisal attacks in Pakistani cities in response to attacks in Afghanistan they attribute to Pakistani intelligence. In recent weeks, Kabul has experienced an uptick in terror attacks, as the newly elected government makes concessions toward Islamabad. Naturally, Afghans have been incensed, feeling that they’ve gotten the raw end of the deal with Islamabad. Tuesday’s school attack, which comes less than a week after a French-funded cultural center and school were attacked in Kabul, fits this pattern of tit-for-tat attacks where the Afghan intelligence aids the Pakistani Taliban in hitting targets in Pakistan after major attacks in Afghanistan.
Even if Afghan intelligence was not involved in the Peshawar attack, the two countries will not find peace until they work together to root out jihadism and articulate a vision of Islam that fosters citizenship, justice, and pluralism. While the Afghan Taliban may have condemned Tuesday’s horrific attack, it has undoubtedly inspired the generation of terrorists that haunts Pakistan today.
Pakistan’s military is learning from its mistakes in the past. But it confuses tactical with strategic gains. Pakistani TV channels, perhaps encouraged by the military, interviewed jihadi leaders such as Fazlur Rehman Khalil and Hafiz Saeed to get their response to Tuesday’s carnage. They were presented as legitimate religious leaders. But even though they condemned the school attacks, they regularly advocate violence against targets outside of Pakistan and are not among the country’s top clerics. It is but another reminder that the government in Islamabad has failed to effectively delegitimize jihadi violence against the state. Of course, that’s in part due to a long history of jihadism as an instrument of state policy. No remedy will be forthcoming until the nation’s leaders wake up to the reality that this double-edged sword vitiates the very idea of a sovereign nation-state, creates monsters that threaten Pakistan’s existence, and encourages Pakistan’s neighbors to give the country a taste of its own medicine.
Military operations alone won’t make Pakistan safer. For the government to give its citizens the peace they deserve and earn respect in the international community, the business of jihad will have to come to a close.
Asif Hassan / AFP