It is difficult to find words to express the sheer horror of the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan. Killing helpless children is perhaps the lowest to which people who call themselves freedom fighters and holy warriors can descend to.
Our immediate task is to step up security in our own schools, especially the ones in the Jammu area, many run for army families living in the numerous cantonments there. In such areas, military facilities are well defended and secured, but residential quarters and schools barely figure in the security plans. It may be recalled that in May 2002, terrorists did breach a military residential area in Kaluchak, near Jammu and killed some 18 family members and 10 civilians and 3 army personnel. The dead included 10 children.
The uncle and cousin of injured student Mohammad Baqair (centre), comfort him as he mourns the death of his mother who was a teacher at the school which was attacked by the Taliban. Pic/AFP
In September 2013, three terrorists in camouflage uniforms breached the international boundary in the Kathua district in Jammu and attacked a police station and killed four policemen and two civilians. They then hijacked a truck and reached an army camp in neighbouring Samba district, where they shot six unarmed army personnel, along with a Lieutenant Colonel. Some reports at the time said that the terrorists were looking for an army school and after failing to find it, hit the armoured unit, which was on the main road.
You can imagine what would have been the consequence of such an attack it would have definitely led to an Indian military retaliation and possible escalation to war. Fortunately, that did not happen. But now that scenario has played itself out in the country which has had no hesitation in repeatedly sending killers, who call themselves Fedayeen, cross into our borders to kill indiscriminately.
In the case of Mumbai in 2008, Pakistani terrorists killed people who were of another faith, but here, the extremist Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) killed their own. This is the insane logic of the violent Islamic extremism. The Pakistani deep state, which nourishes the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, and allows a Hafiz Muhammad Sayeed and his ilk to propagate hatred against India on the basis of religion, should at least now understand and take down the monster they have created. But that won’t happen and you will soon hear suggestions that India was behind the attack because it is they who have nurtured the TTP through the Afghan intelligence.
The terrorists who killed the Pakistani school children claim that they have done their horrifying deed in response to attack on their women folk and children by the Pakistan Army’s operations against the TTP. While there is absolutely no justification for killing innocents who had nothing to do with the Pakistan Army operations, there is need to understand some of the context. The Pakistan Army’s tactics involves using air power and heavy artillery against the elusive guerrillas. Such attacks, more often than not, kill a large number of civilians and have led to the displacement of lakhs of people. Even the so-called precision drone strike campaign of the Americans has killed over 500 civilians along with some 2,000 militants.
Over the years, the Pakistan Army has had an on-again, off-again policy of dealing with the militancy in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (the erstwhile North West Frontier Province) area. Operations began in the area in 2002 as part of the American action in Afghanistan. But the Pakistan Army targeted the Arab, Chechen, Uighur and Uzbek elements, even while trying to make peace with the Pashtun tribes and leaders like Baitullah Mehsud.
The carefully calibrated Pakistani strategy was to allow the Afghan Taliban to recover and undermine the American-led effort to stabilise Afghanistan. Among their proxies were the Haqqani network along with several other tribal leaders like Hafiz Gul Bahadar and Maulvi Nazir whose militancy was focused on Afghanistan. Both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban say that Mullah Omar is their leader, but in October a number of leaders declared that they were pledging their allegiance to the Islamic State.
Islamabad’s strategy went awry when angered by the heavy-handed Pakistan Army attacks, Baitullah formed the TTP in 2007 and declared war on Islamabad. But since Baitullah’s death in a drone strike in 2009, the TTP has fragmented into several groups, the most prominent being led by Maulana Fazlullah, who is from Swat.
In 2009, pushed by the US and by the fall of Swat to the militants, the Pakistan army launched Operation Rah-e-Nijat and took control of South Waziristan. But all the key militant leaders managed to escape to Afghanistan or to North Waziristan. Despite enormous American pressure, the Pakistan army refused to take up phase two of the operation in North Waziristan.
It was only this June, after attempts of the Nawaz government to negotiate with the TTP failed, and the latter not only killed 23 Pakistani soldiers in their captivity, but also launched the audacious attack on Jinnah airport in Karachi, that the army began its Operation Zarb-e-Azb which is still continuing. This operation which has the support of almost all the Pakistani leadership, barring the Jamaat-e-Islami, has been the direct cause of the school massacre on Tuesday. But even now it is not clear just how the Pakistanis are dealing with their proxies like the Haqqanis. In any case, the policy of “good” and “bad” Taliban remains since the Afghan Taliban, including their leader Mullah Omar continue to be provided shelter by Islamabad.
The Pakistani offensive may have been just too late. Because today, violent Islamic extremism has spread across the country, and is not something that can be tackled by the army alone. Such is the situation that the world has almost given up on Pakistan. But this tragedy could be the opportunity for Islamabad and Rawalpindi to make that strategic shift away from using violent Islamic extremists against its neighbours.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi