Some might have wanted to become engineers, doctors or sportspersons. Yet others would have dreamt of travelling around the globe in 80 days. But all the dreams and desires of 132 children were brutally interrupted on Tuesday in Peshawar, Pakistan when a group of seven Taliban attacked an army-run school. A nation is in mourning, but its leaders still have to answer if they are ready to fight both terrorism and the radicalism that gives birth to such violence.
For many, this is indeed Pakistan’s 9/11. Notwithstanding the Taliban’s attack on schools and both hard and soft targets in the past, the terrorists seem to have crossed a line with this attack. The prime minister called an all-party conference and the army chief took a flight to Kabul to demand the extradition of the chief of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Mullah Fazlullah. Interestingly, the responsibility for the attack was claimed by the wing of the TTP that has joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the recent past.
But a more important question is whether those who want to draw attention away from the Taliban will succeed in distracting the government and society at large. In a television programme after the incident, former military dictator Pervez Musharraf pointed at India as the main culprit behind the attack. Indeed, he talked about launching a counter-offensive. One of his main supporters in the media, a television anchor reputed for his close association with military intelligence agencies, suggested banning India’s overhead flights. Not surprisingly, the Lashkar-e-Toiba’s Hafiz Saeed made a similar claim. It could possibly be days before others, like the retired general Hamid Gul, also come out of the woods and begin to sermonise about the main threat being external. There may be an internal division within the armed forces regarding what is considered a bigger threat — the internal or external — but there is almost a consensus on India being the key enemy.
A long trail of blood and bodies, but Pakistan’s state and society may not be close to solving its terrorist problem. There is a possibility that in the days to come, it could all turn into a farce in which military apologists blame politicians, politicians blame each other, as the environment is just not right to ask tough questions of the military, and it ultimately comes to nothing. In the coming days, people will gradually lose the strength to pointedly ask the military commanders about the logic of supporting terror groups that may not be involved internally but are engaged outside. Yet, it is the connection between those who create violence internally and externally that keeps the Taliban machine running. I remember once asking a senior military commander if the army had an automatic button to ensure that those who joined the good Taliban would not turn bad later. He did not seem to have an answer then. Nor do they appear to have one now.
The army chief, the man in charge of running the country’s foreign and defence policies, has certainly come under a lot of pressure as about 80 per cent of the children in the school were from military families, especially junior officers. The question is, would it move him to stop thinking of some militants as critical pawns for the Afghan chessboard, particularly when some of his serving and retired officers sound confident talking about Afghanistan in front of a foreign audience.
The Peshawar school attack reflects how the policy of maintaining strategic assets is no longer maintainable. It has to be dismantled and destroyed, including its root cause — the radicalism narrative. There are structural deficiencies that Pakistan suffers from, such as the poor judicial system and a law enforcement apparatus that fails to bring violent extremists to justice. Nevertheless, all of these issues pale in front of the need to eliminate symbols of terrorism and radicalism. With Hafiz Saeed riding around on horseback in the country’s urban centres like Lahore peddling jihad, or the Lal Masjid cleric going about his business in the heart of the capital city, or the government and political parties shying away from amending rules on blasphemy, the basic mindset that drives violent extremism is likely to continue and even thrive.
Ask an ordinary but sensitive Pakistani today, and they will say they can’t be bothered with any great geopolitical game and would be happy with the gift of life, health and education. Policymakers, of course, are a different story.
The writer, an Islamabad-based independent political and defence analyst, is author, most recently, of ‘Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy’