Nothing justifies the murder, incarceration or torture of children. No matter how bad it gets, no matter what epic oppression has been perpetrated over centuries or decades, no matter what the end goal – if there’s a tacit universal behavioural mandate – this is it. So, what did the Pakistani Taliban, a group of factions who’ve been fighting to topple the government aim to achieve? And how did it all go so wrong? Is it just an oversimplistic adage wherein you drone the smack out of innocent villagers for a decade and then find some of them went crazy & started doing the same?umm Abdillah unpacks a few background pointers to what has been described as the worst militant attack in the country in years.
The city of Peshawar in northern Pakistan is reeling in the wake of a deadly terror attack wherein gunmen killed a total of 141 people including 132 students and nine staff members. 133 others were injured. The rampage at the Army Public School and College began on Tuesday morning when seven militants scaled a back wall using a ladder, according to Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, a military spokesman. When they reached an auditorium where students had gathered for an event, they allegedly opened fire. More than 1000 students and staff are registered at the school, which is part of a network run by the military. The student body is made up of both children of military personnel as well as civilians. Responding to the attack, armoured personnel carriers were deployed around the school, and a military helicopter circled overhead. The seven attackers, wearing explosive vests, all died in the eight-hour assault.
The Pakistan Taliban (formally known as Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP) has claimed responsibility. We’re told they chose the Army Public School and Degree College because most of the city’s army personnel have their children enrolled at the school. These teenagers became intergenerational casualties in an ongoing fight between the militants and Pakistani military.
“We selected the army’s school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females,” said TTP spokesman Muhammad Umar Khurasani. “We want them to feel the pain.”
The TTP emerged as a result of the Pakistani army’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) operation in 2002, which together with the US, indiscriminately hunted down militant groups along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. This is the area in which most drone strikes take place. In 2007, more than a dozen factions based in different parts of northwest Pakistan formed a loose alliance, called the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), to fight against the Pakistani military. The group was initially led by Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed by a missile-firing US drone in South Waziristan in August 2009. He was replaced by Hakimullah Mehsud, who was killed in a US drone strike in November 2013. The head of the TTP, Mullah Fazlullah, is believed to be in north-eastern Afghanistan. Some within the Pakistani security establishment remain convinced that Delhi is backing his campaigns. Mohammed Khurasani, the spokesman who claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack, has been in the job for only a few weeks.
Driven by a deep sense of insecurity regarding Afghanistan and India, Pakistan has pursued a strategy that incorporates conventional elements of deterrence—they have the world’s 6th largest army and the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal— but they also use shady militant groups that allow harassment of its rivals while maintaining a thin fiction of deniability. Officials in both Afghanistan and India have repeatedly accused Pakistan of having a dirty history – harbouring militants responsible for a string of strikes in their own countries and also allowing the US to indiscriminately bomb Pakistani civilians. At the same time they allow Afghan Taliban leadership and other insurgent groups to operate from Pakistan. Then there’s the backdrop of the continuing power struggle in Pakistan between the army generals and the elected civilian government. Indicative of this, is that Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister, and Raheel Sharif, the army chief, both flew to Peshawar but did not travel together.
More than 400 drone strikes have hit the tribal regions of north-west Pakistan since 2004. Only 704 of the 2,379 dead have been identified, and only 295 of these were reported to be members of some kind of armed group. Few corroborating details are available for those who were just described as militants. More than a third of them were not designated a rank, and almost 30% are not even linked to a specific group. Only 84 are identified as members of al Qaeda – less than 4% of the total number of people killed.
According to Reuters, an Afghan Taliban spokesperson has spoken out against the TTP: “The intentional killing of innocent people, children and women are against the basics of Islam and this criteria has to be considered by every Islamic party and government,” said Zabihullah Mujahid in a statement.
The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, has declared three days of mourning over the massacre. He also announced an end to the moratorium on the death penalty for terrorism cases, a move aimed at countering a view held by many Pakistanis that terror suspects end up evading justice.
No doubt the immediate reaction from the Pakistani military will be swift and awful, with hundreds more casualties. It remains to be seen whether Pakistan will continue to treat militant groups as assets to use against its regional rivals. It also remains to be seen whether massacres like this will make the Pakistani state realise that an asymmetric warfare strategy left her children unprotected.
Image Credit: A funeral of those killed by CIA drone strikes in Pakistan.