The South Asia Channel
Changing Pakistan’s Militancy Narrative
Belittling militant attacks as routine and blaming outside parties needs to stop.
On Tuesday, Dec. 16, gunmen entered a public school in the heart of Peshawar and indiscriminately slaughtered more than 140 people, 132 of which were children. In a statement reportedly claiming responsibility for the attack, the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — a confederation of militant groups based in the tribal regions along the Afghan border, but increasingly operational throughout the rest of Pakistan — said their attack was in retaliation for the military’s latest operations in North Waziristan.
As a Pashtun who has spent most of his life in Peshawar — an ancient city of more than three million people — I can find no words that adequately capture the agony of the dwellers in my hometown who went through one of the most tragic moments of their lives and now know firsthand that “the smallest coffins are the heaviest.”
Around the world, the reaction to the attack in Peshawar has been one of strong condemnation for such violence against innocent children. In Pakistan too, the reaction has been overwhelmingly sympathetic for the victims and nearly universal condemnation of the perpetrators. A day after the heinous attack, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif presided over a presided over a meeting of the country’s top political leadership to devise a unified strategy for dealing with the Taliban. Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned politician and main opposition leader, called off his four months-long agitation against the government and announced he would cooperate with Sharif in dealing with the militant threat. The Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif (no relation to the prime minister), also made an emergency visit to Kabul to discuss security issues with the Afghan leadership.
Amid the grief and agony, there is a countrywide appreciation for unity amongst the political and military leadership on dealing with the internal threat of militancy. An overwhelming majority of Pakistanis have also welcomed announcements by Prime Minister Sharif that he will restore the death penalty for terrorists, stop any differentiation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban, and fight until the last terrorist has been eliminated. Yet, while these are good gestures, the question remains whether the attack in Peshawar will serve as a wake-up call for the Pakistani security establishment to initiate decisive action against the Taliban. Pakistan’s track record leaves this in doubt.
Pakistanis are always emotionally united by their grief after attacks such as the one in Peshawar. However, the political and military leadership has never joined in any determined commitment to clearly identify the culprits behind these violent acts and to find long-lasting solutions for eliminating the Taliban militancy. And that is the real tragedy.
Though generals, politicians, and analysts condemn attacks by the Taliban, they also belittle them as routine matters. These same leaders invariably join hands in a semi-coordinated program of denial, while invoking various types of conspiracies in order to shift blame onto “foreign hands” — namely the Indians, but often the Americans and CIA as well. Even when the TTP claims responsibility, as it often does, the ruling elite and many media analysts continue their public speculations, refusing to accept that the perpetrators are, like them, Pakistani and Muslim. This narrative, however, must change and there are several steps Pakistan’s leaders can take going forward.
First, as many other analysts have noted, Pakistan must clearly break its ties with all militant groups and stop differentiating between the so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ factions of the group. While Prime Minister Sharif addressed this need in his first response to the Peshawar attack, it remains to be seen how serious Pakistan is in going after the Afghan Taliban, many members of which operate in the country’s border regions; the Haqqani Network, which is also believed to be hiding in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan; and sectarian jihadi groups, which are mostly based in the southern part of Punjab province and often have links to global jihadists. Supporting any such group in any way not only weakens Pakistan’s diplomatic standing, but also weakens the state’s own war against the TTP. And for this myopic policy, Pakistan has paid a heavy price.
Second, Pakistan is home to many jihadi groups and it must own the war against its homegrown militants. The denial has to be overcome. The TTP is relentlessly bringing tragedy down upon ordinary Pakistanis. Schools are being destroyed, worshippers are being gunned down, and innocent children are being attacked. They are indeed the perpetrators of these acts of terror; Pakistan’s leaders should not whitewash them with phony excuses. Pakistan needs to break the narrative that allows this collective denial and recognize that the TTP is real, it’s strong, it’s determined, and though it may be on the run right now, it is not anywhere close to down and out.
And last, but certainly not least, Pakistan must begin the long-awaited and much needed process of changing the centuries-old buffer zone status of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which has long been a safe haven for the TTP and other militant groups. Addressing the FATA challenge is critical to achieving a lasting regional peace. It is the region that has been worst hit since the start of the global war on terror, yet it is the most ignored one too.
Since the start of full-fledged military operations in Waziristan in 2004, the people in FATA have been living with constant threats from all sides — the TTP, Pakistan’s military operations, and American drone strikes. As a result, hundreds of thousands of FATA tribesmen have become internally displaced persons in the wake of military operations in various parts of the area, and they live in absolutely inhuman conditions.
But though FATA has dominated global headlines since 9/11, and much has been said about political and administrative reforms and economic growth projects, it is still one of the poorest regions in the world. Much of this is due to the fact that it is still administered through the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) order, which was imposed by the British Raj in 1901. (To suit their own interests, the British rulers designed the area as a ‘frontier’ buffer zone, separating its empire from Russia.) To make matters worse, FATA couldn’t be decolonized when Pakistan gained its independence in 1947. It is now high time that the tribesmen in FATA be given full constitutional rights, as well as the same economic opportunities and facilities as the rest of the country.
Even more importantly, Pakistan’s political and military leadership needs to accept reality and be honest with the people. The TTP and their local and global terrorist allies have vowed to continue their attacks. Without some serious changes, the innocent school children in Peshawar will just be more casualties in a long war and Pakistan’s suffering will continue.
Bethany Clarke/Getty Images for 9th World Islamic Economic Forum