The South Asia Channel
A Wake-Up Call for Pakistan’s Leaders
The murder of schoolchildren demands action on Pakistan's counterterrorism policy.
In what has now been termed Pakistan’s deadliest civilian attack, six members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) stormed the Army Public School and College on Warsak Road in Peshawar on Dec. 16, leaving 141 dead, including 132 schoolchildren, most between the ages of 16 and 17, and many of whom were the children of army soldiers. In the gruesome and barbaric assault, the militants entered the school from a less-guarded back entrance and opened indiscriminate fire in the auditorium. (Unconfirmed claims also state that children from military families were separated from their peers and shot in the head.)
The Army’s Quick Response Force rescue operation saved 960 students and staff, an indication of just how many could have been killed. Heart-wrenching images and accounts rendered by children who survived have been enough to solidify a grieving nation’s shock and horror. One student hid beneath a desk, biting on his tie to prevent himself from screaming, as militants donned in paramilitary uniforms and “big black boots” sprayed bullets into his peers. Another student detailed how his 24-year-old teacher, later shot and set on fire by the militants, died trying to shield her students.
As the 121 people who were injured recover at the Combined Military Hospital and Lady Reading Hospital, the international outpouring of grief and sorrow has been overwhelming. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the “senseless act of unspeakable brutality,” and leaders from the United States, Canada, Japan, Iran, and Australia have all condemned the attack. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon reiterated the United Nation’s commitment to support the fight against terrorism, and Turkish flags flew at half-mast out of sorrow and respect for the dead. In Pakistan, candlelight vigils, walks, and prayers have been held daily. The mood is gloomy and quiet in a nation gripped by grief and sorrow. Many have even suggested that this could be Pakistan’s 9/11, its “watershed moment.” Given Pakistan’s lack of clarity on terrorism, there is enough reason to believe that it might not.
Schools in Pakistan usually do not have high levels of security, but questions will be raised as to how the militants were able storm an Army school located in a sensitive area that houses a string of educational institutions, carry ammunition that could have lasted them days, cross eight border check posts before reaching the school, establish communication lines, and secure paramilitary uniforms. Questions will also be raised regarding the ability, interest, and effectiveness of the provincial government — currently governed by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party — that, up until the Peshawar attack, was planning on “shutting down” major cities in an election-rigging protest campaign. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif won’t escape questions either: he faces criticism for failing to enforce concrete policies against terrorist attacks despite the brutality Pakistan frequently faces.
The TTP’s spokesperson, Muhammad Khurasani, announced that the Peshawar attack was in retaliation to Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the Pakistani Army’s move against militants in North Waziristan. In response to the school attack, the Army launched 20 airstrikes in Khyber Agency, killing 57 militants. Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif, accompanied by the director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, flew to Kabul to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, General John F. Campbell, implying the presence of actionable intelligence following the Peshawar attack. Reports also claim that General Sharif sought the handover of TTP chief Mullah Maulana Fazlullah, believed to be hiding in Afghanistan. An emergency meeting like this is critical, not only for the possibility of joint action and strengthening AfPak military and intelligence coordination, but also to present a united perception against common militants.
In the aftermath of the Peshawar attack, Prime Minister Sharif called an emergency Multi-Party Conference to form a strategy to stop terrorist activities, review the current security strategy in place, and provide a united political front. The same futile exercise was carried out at the All-Parties Conference back in February 2013, just as Pakistan was anticipating a major military offensive against the militants, of which nothing tangible has been enforced. Other than convening meetings and forming fruitless committees, the Pakistani leadership faces three main problems and remains weak and unable to present a strong, determined, and unequivocal stance against terrorists.
The first problem the leadership faces is the lack of clarity on who the enemy truly is. The political leadership often stops short of naming terrorist groups, preferring instead to use the umbrella terms “extremists” or “terrorists.” By doing this, mainstream parties, such as the PTI, externalize the threats — effectively legitimizing attacks — and shift culpability away from the internal factors that created such monsters in the first place. This narrative confuses Pakistan’s youth — a group deeply impressionable and dangerously susceptible to radicalization — and can be readily exploited by militants. Compounding this attribution is the myriad of political alliances formed with banned groups in exchange for securing votes, which in turn provide such groups with significant inroads into Pakistan’s political structure.
The second problem the leadership has is implementing critical counterterrorism policies already in place. Pakistan’s first National Internal Security Policy, which was formulated to protect Pakistan’s national interests by addressing critical security issues, remains dormant. Though the National Counter Terrorism Authority is legally bound to meet every quarter, the current prime minister has yet to chair a single meeting. Furthermore, structural issues, such as building the capacity of law enforcement agencies, remain wanting. The Directorate of Internal Security, tasked with coordinating Pakistan’s 33 civil and military operational intelligence agencies, has yet to be established. In addition to lacking funds, out of a total strength of more than 600,000 personnel, “approximately 56,000 vacancies” still remain in police and civilian armed forces.
The third problem requires more long-term action and introspective thinking. Given the divided nature of Pakistani society, the mainstream permeation of radical elements, and the lack of clarity on behalf of the political leadership, Pakistan does not have a cohesive and strong counterterrorism narrative. When the state is weak, unclear, and unable to create a clear dichotomy between “us” and “them,” it has failed in the first step towards eradicating militancy. Retooling Pakistan’s outlook will take at least a generation to take root. It will involve the much talked about textbook reform program, a staunch and clear identification of the enemies of the state, and a sustainable and consistent narrative that continuously reiterates the state’s position vis-à-vis terrorist groups.
In order to create this narrative, it is imperative that the state looks within itself and its historical performance in not only creating terrorist groups, but ceding them space to let their ideology and presence flourish, whether through training centers, seminaries, or media outlets, amongst others. In a rare statement by the military, General Sharif affirmed the Army is targeting all militants “without any discrimination, whether it is [the] Haqqani network, TTP, or any other group.” Statements like these are necessary to reaffirm the state’s position and serve as a clear reminder of where it should — and does — stand. Finally, it is imperative for the state to recognize its internal threat rather than blaming external forces — a tactic it has practiced for far too long. Cleaning its own house and targeting internal elements is critical to preventing future attacks. There was never any doubt that the backlash from the military operation was going to be brutal, but Pakistan is far beyond the point of hoping that it was not going to be.
Dec. 16, 2014 is a date that will be forever etched into the memories of Pakistan’s citizens. Images of butchered children lying lifeless in a school auditorium should be enough to incite greater action, beyond mere condemnations, from Pakistan’s political leaders. For the Pakistani military, the game of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban must fully come to an end. Attacks such as this week’s shooting have shown that even though the TTP may be disbanded, its ability to coordinate strikes against the state has not diminished. It is time for introspection and tangible action. A nation shaken to its core has lost too many innocent lives, and there is no longer any space for confusion or further time to waste.
SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images