On December 16, 2014, the Taliban launched the deadliest attack in Pakistan’s history, killing at least 148 people, including 132 schoolchildren, at the Army Public School in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Mohammad Khorasani, also known as Omer Khorasan, who heads the Jamatul Ahrar, a faction of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) led by Maulana Fazllula, quickly accepted responsibility for the attack. A spokesperson for the Jamatul Ahrar said the assault was in retaliation for the ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan. He further claimed that the school had been targeted because “almost all students are the children of army personnel.”
The attack on the Army Public School was unequivocally condemned, nationally and internationally. Even the Afghan Taliban weighed in, calling it “un-Islamic.” Hafiz Saeed chief of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, whom India accuses of masterminding the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, also expressed outrage. He called the murder of children “cowardly behavior” and said that Islam “never taught us to kill innocent children and women even in war.”
Incidentally, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was also home to Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever Nobel Prize Laureate. She was reportedly singled out and shot in the head on October 9, 2012 by the TTP as she rode to school in a van with other girls. Malala luckily survived. The TTP was founded in 2007 in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and has links with the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
“I could not control my tears. I cannot explain but I wept. I know it was against the rules of our profession but it was the moment to break the rules.” One of the gravediggers, Mr. Taj Muhammad, at Peshawar’s largest graveyard was speaking to the Associated Press. He added, “I have buried bodies of the deceased of different ages, sizes, and weights,” He told AP. “Those small bodies I have been burying since yesterday felt much heavier than any of the big ones I have buried before.”
In the 2013 general elections, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), led by former cricket star Imran Khan, won a majority of seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Given Khan’s pro-Taliban stance, analysts say, militancy increased. In 2014, newspaper reports had 39 militant outfits operating in the province, with 20 other groups functioning in the garb of Pakistani Taliban. As for Khan, his critics say he has not changed his pro-Taliban stance, citing three reasons for their believe: First, he did not condemn the Taliban when they attacked the All Saints Church of Peshawar in 2013, killing 81 Christian worshippers. Second, while he did criticize the Peshawar school incident, he neither named the Taliban nor did he condemn them. Third, Khan was quoted by a national newspaper in 2014 as saying: “The Taliban did not want to enforce sharia in the country at gunpoint but wanted to liberate it from the U.S. war.” The PTI leaders vehemently rebuff the claims, calling them propaganda against their party leader.
“The APC Peshawar massacre led to a supposed shift in the country’s security paradigm,” Umer Ali, who is a journalist based in Rawalpindi, told The Diplomat, “Progress against the TTP militants is commendable, but the likes of Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) still remain at large – not to forget Maulana Abdul Aziz, the cleric of Lal Masjid (mosque), who vows to resume his venomous campaign as the ISIS threat looms over our heads.”
Ali adds that dark times are ahead unless the security establishment stops patronizing non-state actors.
After coming to power, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan also urged peace talks with the TTP. Following the attack on the APC, however, Sharif said in a televised address, “The Peshawar atrocity has changed Pakistan. We need to eradicate the mindset of terrorism to defeat extremism and sectarianism.” He added, “This horrendous attack has shaken the nation as the terrorists attacked the future of this country.”
The Peshawar tragedy united both the civilian and military leadership of the country, resulting in a National Action Plan (NAP) to eradicate terrorism. To execute the plan, the government subsequently presented the 21st constitutional amendment and the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Bill 2015. Both bills passed, among other things allowing for the establishment of military courts for terrorists, for speedy trials.
The Washington Post has reported that after years of terrorist attacks, military coups and political upheaval, Pakistan has for now settled into a period of relative calm. Over the past nine months, government statistics show, major terrorist attacks have declined 70 percent, and Pakistanis are flocking back to shopping malls, resorts and restaurants.
However, Marvi Sirmed, a columnist with The Nation, writes, “One important factor in NAP’s ineffectiveness has been continuous problem of ownership and responsibility among various tiers of the state. Whereas the military institutions have been eager to claim credit of successes, the blame of failures and inaction has been invariably put on civilian security machinery. The civilian leadership and institutions on the other hand have largely been appearing as lame ducks.”
In Punjab province, Punjab Home Minister Shuja Khanzada was at the forefront in cracking down on banned outfits under the NAP. He was killed in a suicide attack along with 19 other people at his political office in Shadi Khan village, Attock District. One of the Taliban-affiliated militant groups, Lashkar-e-Islam, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was retaliation for military operations against them.
A Lahore-based journalist told The Diplomat that counterterrorism efforts had traditionally been directed at the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with the government ignoring Punjab, where sectarian and religious extremist groups are based. As a consequence, Punjab is now a major source of terrorism. However, the journalist agrees that since the attack on the APS in Peshawar, the government had been much more aggressive in tackling terrorism.
The Pakistan Institute for Parliamentary Services (PIPS), set up to provide quality research and capacity building services for parliamentarians and parliamentary functionaries, recently noted that the National Action Plan is a stop-gap arrangement for tackling the menace of terrorism. It can be termed a short-term strategy – but even based on that understanding it has serious challenges. The country still needs a comprehensive antiterrorism strategy with short-, medium-, and long-term goals. It also needs different strategies for different types of terrorist groups, such as religious and nationalist separatists. The national consensus that formed in the wake of the tragedy in Peshawar has created the conditions for developing just such a comprehensive strategy. The government need only seize the opportunity.
Muhammad Akbar Notezai is a columnist at the Daily Times.