Why 2015 Will Be ‘The Year of Never Again’ … Again
In Nigeria and Pakistan, unforgivable attacks on schoolchildren have made the world rise up in anger. Unfortunately, that's all it did.
It’s that time of year when we journalists push out our year-in-reviews and annual top 10, 50, or 100 lists. Alas 2014, for me, is the year we watched terrorists attack thousands of kids in schools, made a huge stink about it, allowed ourselves to dream that this time things will change –and then nothing was done about it. And nothing will be.
Months before the remarkable Malala Yousafzai and Indian child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi won the Nobel Peace Prize, Boko Haram militants swept down on a school in Chibok in the remote northeastern corner of Nigeria. More than 200 schoolgirls were abducted, triggering howls of condemnation, a star-studded #BringBackOurGirls campaign, and international summits where regional and global leaders pledged their help. All of which achieved … nothing. The girls and their families have been left to rot and nobody seems to have any idea where they are; meanwhile there was speculation this summer that some had been used as human bombs, though the government dismissed such claims. Meanwhile, heaven knows what all those foreign military advisors from the United States, Britain , France, China, and Israel in Nigeria have managed to achieve.
At last update, Nigeria had told the United States to take your military aid and shove it. Abuja is throwing a fit because Washington has refused –because of the Nigerian military’s abysmal human rights and corruption track records — to supply it with the Cobra attack helicopters and other sophisticated military hardware the generals want. Now, with barely two months to go until Nigeria’s critical 2015 general elections, politicians are playing an old campaign stunt, telling voters they have failed to deal with Boko Haram because a fickle superpower is denying the country the necessary military equipment.
If the kidnapped schoolgirls from Chibok and their marginalized families were Chinese workers or the wife of the vice prime minister in neighboring Cameroon, for instance, ransoms would be paid, prisoners swapped, and they’d be ringing in the New Year at home. But alas, they live in remote northeastern states, where nobody even knows if the elections will be held, so are best used to score political points. Sucks for you guys.
Then, just as the year was slouching to a close, Peshawar happened. As six Pakistani Taliban militants tore through the Peshawar army school, mowing down 132 students and more than 10 staffers, one question kept playing in a loop in my mind — as I’m sure it did for many others: How many schoolchildren must be killed, kidnapped, or intimidated for us to make this world a safe enough place for kids to just get an education?
There’s little doubt the Tehreek-e-Taliban (the official name of the Pakistani Taliban) made a strategic error with this one. Their bloodlust has put off the likes of the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba — even al Qaeda. Jihadist groups squirming over the brutality of their jihadist brothers always strikes me as rather rich: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi hurt Osama bin Laden’s sensitivities, the Islamic State is too bad for al Qaeda, and now, the Afghan Taliban’s Zabihullah Mujahid and Lashkar’s Hafiz Saeed are distraught about the havoc Brother Umar Khorasani of the Tehreek-e-Taliban has wrought. Save it for some security wonk who gets fired up tracking splinter groups and tribes and factions. Too many precious months and years have been wasted chasing the vain “talking to the Taliban” dream, plugged and pushed so effectively by the talking to the Taliban industry of politicians, middle men, and negotiators.
In the shocked aftermath of the Peshawar school attack, though, many wondered if this was the tipping point when sense will dawn across fundamentalist-lite sections of Pakistan, when the people, their leaders, and generals will come together to heal their world. I too wondered if maybe, just maybe, the lessons of the Peshawar army school attack will finally be learned.
But then the next day dawned, and the day after, and I wondered how could I have been so naïve? High-profile terror attacks invariably spark public outrage, followed by some tough talk from the authorities. In Pakistan’s case, this has meant lifting an unofficial moratorium on executions, with six convicted militants hanged barely a week after the school massacre. As angry protesters in cities like Karachi and Lahore took to the streets over the weekend waving placards proclaiming, “Crush Taliban, Hang Terrorists!” Pakistani officials told reporters that around 500 more convicts will be executed “in the coming weeks”. This has of course sparked criticism from human rights groups such as Amnesty International.
But the populist, “tough on terrorism” government response is a sop to the lack of a national strategy — or the will — to address the root of the problem. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said the government is abandoning its futile, decades-old attempt to differentiate between “good” and “bad” Taliban. For the moment, the politicians — including Sharif’s arch political rival, Imran Khan — have warmed to the theme.
Both Sharif and Khan made huge political gains in recent years running on a platform of negotiating with the Taliban: Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PLMN) won the 2013 general election, while Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) governs the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of which Peshawar is the capital. Come election time, and once the rage over the Peshawar school attack dies, none of the politicians will be willing to take on the national narrative — aided by decades of Islamization and a “jihadi curriculum” in schools introduced by the likes of Khan — because this is what wins elections.
And the politicians are just the tip of the iceberg. All this talk of no differentiation between “good” and “bad” Taliban has masked the real problem: Pakistan’s powerful military is perfectly happy to intensify its current military offensive in the border tribal areas, but will it suddenly turn on the jihadi groups it has wielded in Indian-controlled Kashmir and neighboring Afghanistan, abandoning a key foreign policy strategy in Islamabad and Rawalpindi?
Don’t hold your breath; the answer is no, of course the generals won’t stop funding and supporting their favorite jihadists.
On the night before the Peshawar school attack, as the Tehreek-e-Taliban militants were no doubt gearing up for the next day’s assault, Pakistani audiences tuning into satellite TV stations were being fed the latest on a planned Dec. 18 nationwide shutdown by opposition politician Imran Khan. The former cricketer-turned-politician has kept up a high nuisance-value protest campaign demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. In a country where the military has historically undermined and unseated civilian governments, Khan’s sit-in protests have ground cities to a halt, sparked deadly clashes, and fueled rumors that Khan is backed by the military.
Following the gruesome Peshawar school attack, Khan called off the protests. “We have always supported the government” in the fight against terrorism, Khan maintained, rather disingenuously considering he has been one of the most vociferous pillars of the talking to the Taliban industry. In his relentless quest to oust the Sharif government, Khan has kept the anti-U.S. pitch on full blast, flirted with the Taliban, got in bed with the likes of cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and Jamaat-e-Islami chief Sirajul Haq and earned himself the moniker “Taliban Khan.”
Still, many analysts rushed around proclaiming, among other things, that Pakistan had just had its “9/11” moment and that much-awaited change is around the corner. I wish I could have what these pundits are having. But I fear Pakistan, like Nigeria, will do precious little to address the groundwork that has enabled groups like Boko Haram and the Tehreek-e-Taliban to attack school kids on a mass scale. While the Nigerian political and military elites centered in the oil-rich south lack the will to address the Boko Haram menace plaguing the remote northeast, in Pakistan, the favored jihadists are too entrenched, powerful, and vocal to be silenced.
The night of the attack, as Pakistani TV stations featured wall-to-wall coverage of the carnage in Peshawar, old jihadist granddaddies such as Fazlur Rehman Khalil and Hafiz Saeed were rolled out, presented as legitimate clerical elders, and allowed to discourse on the “un-Islamic” nature of the Peshawar school attack. Khalil is the founder of Harakat al-Mujahideen (HuM), a militant Islamist group that has been designated a terrorist group by the United States, Britain, and the United Nations — but not Pakistan — which has splintered into myriad other groups, all bound together by the jihadist umbilical. According to a 2011 New York Times report, Osama bin Laden’s courier’s seized cellphone showed extensive contacts with HuM leaders, and the group’s close ties with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) led the New York Times to question ISI and Pakistani Army complicity in bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout. Now its leader is expounding on Pakistani satellite channels in a country where guys like these don’t go on national TV without a nod from the military bosses.
As for Hafiz Saeed, he’s the founder and still widely believed to be the true leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the militant group behind the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, that killed more than 160 people, including six Americans. The U.N. has placed him on a terrorist list, the United States has put a $10 million reward for information leading to his arrest, and yet he walks and talks freely in Pakistan. As the New York Times’ Declan Walsh — who interviewed Saeed in his Lahore home guarded by Pakistani security officials — noted: “Ten million dollars does not seem to buy much in this bustling Pakistani city.”
The problem with this official talk of “no such thing as a good or bad Taliban” is that it omits any mention of the ever-mutating, multiheaded hydra of jihadist groups that concentrate on Indian-controlled Kashmir or on Pakistan’s “Shiite problem.” They splinter and split, their members swim from one group to another, but the ideology remains. These are the groups that were bred in the ISI petri-dish and fed on the spy agency’s payrolls as “strategic assets” to further Pakistan’s “strategic depth.” There’s so much strategic goodwill between these jihadist groups and the country’s intelligence agency, you have to be a fool to think fundamental change is coming to Pakistan anytime soon.
My guess is that once the furor over the Peshawar army school attack dies, life will just carry on –like it did after the Chibok abductions. The ISI bosses will be back in business, advancing their strategic mess. The TV stations will go back to covering the minutiae Imran Khan’s political antics. An alarming percentage of the population brought up on decades of Islamization will continue to believe a “good Muslim” (whatever that may mean) cannot possibly be a bad jihadist. An even bigger percentage of the population will blame all manner of foreigners for the problems created and ignored by military-intelligence toughs and shortsighted politicians.
In the old days, the United States, the CIA, India, and the Indian intelligence services got the rap. Now, there’s a new bogeyman: Afghanistan and the Afghan intelligence service. Pakistanis today accuse Afghanistan of providing sanctuary to the Tehreek-e-Taliban. The cruel twist to all this, of course, is that the Afghan Taliban was supported and sustained under former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s reign to destabilize Afghanistan. Now if the Pakistanis are to be believed, the Afghans are playing a game conceived and honed by their Pakistani brethren. Some might say it’s comeuppance at last, which would have been sweet if only it was not so damn stupid and dangerous –for Pakistan, Afghanistan, and all the school children.
Eight months after we took to Twitter, demanding the authorities #BringBackOurGirls, we now know the girls are never coming back home. They have been sold, married, or dispersed. The Nigerian authorities lost precious time in the days and weeks after the kidnappings as the Goodluck Jonathan administration hemmed and hawed, underestimated the figures, lied and denied until ordinary Nigerians got so fed up, they organized an international campaign that succeeded in drawing attention to the tragedy but failed to retrieve the girls. At some point this year, we got trapped in confusing narratives of the Nigerian government’s own version of the “talking to the Taliban” drama, with the military announcing it had signed a truce deal with Boko Haram, a claim that many Nigerians immediately — and rightly — dismissed.
“Negotiating” with jihadist groups like Boko Haram and the Taliban is not the same as dealing with the likes of the IRA or FARC, but try telling that to the select circle of international mediators who think they can replicate Northern Ireland in the Pashtun badlands or northeastern Nigeria. And so, Boko Haram — which means “Western education is forbidden” — won the round this year. And with the much-promised 2014 U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan finally upon us and the Taliban waiting until the snow melts in the high mountain passes to begin the spring 2015 offensive, the schoolchildren will be no safer next year than they were in 2014.
A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images