Originally Published 2014-12-22 00:00:00 Published on Dec 22, 2014
The Peshawar attack offers the Pakistan leadership a corner to turn around - it only needs to first define who is a terrorist? But is the military and civilian leadership of Pakistan capable, and willing, to take on the terrorist groups, especially TTP? The rhetoric and actions on the part of the leadership raise serious doubts about the will.
Peshawar massacre: What now?

The savage killing of 132 school children and nine adults in a Pakistan Army-run school in Peshawar on December 16 by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorists has badly shaken the country, and the world in general, but has done nothing more. The civilian and military leadership in Pakistan and the international community should have, by now, put into place a comprehensive action plan to save a nuclear-armed, conflict-ridden country from being falling into an existential crisis.

Besides the sheer brutality of mowing down young and innocent children, the TTP's terrorist attack in Peshawar has far-reaching consequences for the Pakistani state. The most critical being that the state cannot be seen losing to terrorist groups. But it is already fated to reach such an eventuality unless it takes immediate corrective action which it cannot. The crux of this dilemma is that the state, as it exists in Pakistan, is the problem.

Before examining the state's immediate response to the terrorist attack which provides an insight into the complex nature of Pakistan's failure to stem terrorism, it will be useful to identify some of the key reasons for the state to have reached a breaking point.

The most widely documented and commented cause is the state's complicity with terrorist groups for the past several decades, more specifically during and after the Afghan Jihad days. The army had in fact started deploying proxy terrorist groups long before the US-Saudi Arabia funded jihad in Afghanistan. The first instance was the tribal raid on Kashmir within few months of the independence in August 1947. Here the army used tribesmen from Orakazai and Mehsud tribes to raid and pillage cross over into Kashmir before they were stopped by a timely intervention by the Indian forces. Then during the liberation war of Bangladesh, the army used several proxy groups associated with Jamaat-e-Islami to commit atrocities on the Bengali Muslims of East Pakistan. The army has also used some of these extremist groups, before the Afghan Jihad, to suppress dissent by Ahmadis, Shias and Baloch.

After the `success` of Afghan Jihad, the Pakistan Army began creating and supporting various terrorist and extremist outfits with two principle aims-to create a `strategic depth` in Afghanistan and to launch an asymmetric war against India, beginning with Kashmir. This policy, pursued relentlessly by both the military and the civilian leadership, from the 90s, has not yielded any significant outcome for the state but left it burdened with a feeble political structure, a blooming economic crisis and a sharply divided and radicalised society.

The sectarian bloodletting-hundreds of Shias are killed every year in the name of religion-and the atrocities against minorities, sanctioned by the Constitution and laws like Blasphemy Law, rarely stir public emotions and protests in the country, a telling indication of a complex mixture of complicity, support and indifference both among the general public and the leadership. The public reaction to the killing of former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was symptomatic of the broad public acceptance of extremist ideology and actions. The recent public meetings held by Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) chief Hafiz Saeed, with considerable support from the state, only emphasise this affinity.

This broader public tolerance for extremist and terrorist groups has further reinforced the military's strategy of deploying these forces against India and Afghanistan. It also helped the military to deny the possibility of some of these forces going `rogue` and biting the patrons. The Peshawar attack, and similar other equally brutal attacks this year, is the outcome of this mass denial.

There is another kind of denial at play in Pakistan which is rarely commented upon but is important to examine in the context of the Peshawar attack. It is the brutal state repression of Pashtuns in the tribal areas. The tribal communities, mostly Sunni Pashtuns, have been bearing the brunt of military offensives by Pakistan Army since 2002 and Drone attacks by the US Army from 2004 onwards. More than 2400 have been killed in the Drone strikes. The number of civilian casualties, many among them women and children, in Drone attacks remains highly contested but not denied. There is no record of civilian deaths in military operations carried out by Pakistan Army on various occasions beginning 2002. What is known, however, that whenever the army went into operations in FATA, it used combat jets, tanks and field artillery to target the militant hideouts and ground operations involved systematic destruction of houses and villages falling within the operational areas.

The impact of the military operations on the people of the tribal areas could, however, be more correctly gauged by the number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). In 2008, for instance, when Pakistan Army had launched a massive operation to free Swat from the Taliban stranglehold, over eight million people were officially registered as IDPs with the government. This August, merely two months after the army began its operation in North Waziristan, Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the number of IDPs from the `war zone `had crossed one million. The anger and frustration at frequent military operations and being uprooted from their homes have instilled a feeling of injustice and revenge among the Pashtun communities from the tribal areas which groups like TTP exploit to carry out their campaign against Pakistani state, especially the security forces.

The Pakistan Army's policy of supporting Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network has only helped TTP further. The Afghan Taliban's strongholds in the eastern and southern provinces of Afghanistan, shored up by the Haqqani Network, provide easy and safe sanctuary for TTP terrorists during the military operations. The TTP's operational relationship with al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network makes the challenge even more complicated for the army. Most of the top leadership of al Qaeda's unit in Pakistan and al Qaeda in South Asia, for instance, have had a stint with TTP.

Given the enormous challenge, is the military and civilian leadership of Pakistan capable, and willing, to take on the terrorist groups, especially TTP. The rhetoric and actions on the part of the leadership in the wake of the Peshawar attack raise serious doubts about the will.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made two relevant statements-one that there is no distinction between Good Taliban and Bad Taliban, and second about lifting the moratorium on death penalty to terrorists. Two randomly selected terrorists have been hanged to death and a third one has been released on bail. There is of course a loud silence on who is `good` and who is not. Most of the Afghan Taliban leadership lives in Quetta, Peshawar and Karachi under the protection of Pakistan Army. LeT chief Hafiz Saeed and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) leader Masood Azhar live in Punjab, the Sharif family's stronghold. Others like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi leader Malik Ishaq, a staunch political supporter of the Sharif family and a killer of hundreds of Shias in the recent years roams around freely in Punjab. Incidentally, TTP has a working relationship with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ) which was instrumental in shepherding fleeing al Qaeda and Taliban leadership to safety in the tribal areas after the US began bombing their strongholds in Afghanistan in October 2001. Four days after the Peshawar attack, these ``Good Taliban`` remain untouched.

The Pakistan Army chief, General Raheel Sharif, has been more active. He flew, with his ISI chief, to Kabul to ask, or threaten, the new Afghan leadership to hand over Mullah Fazlullah, an ally turned rogue, who the army believe is behind the Peshawar attack. The army has also intensified bombing in new areas, notching up more kills. There is no word on civilian casualties, nor is there any identification of those killed.

Fazullah, in any case, is the leader of one faction of TTP; there are other factions and their leaders, all competing to prove superior to each other, and strengthen their influence by planning more spectacular attacks. The Wagah attack, which killed over 60 persons on November 2, 2014, was claimed by Jamat-ul Ahrar, a splinter group of TTP. In September 2013, another TTP faction carried out a bomb attack on a church in Peshawar killing over 127 people, many of them women and children. The TTP has a strong base in Karachi from where it draws much of its funding and recruits. It also has a substantial support network in Punjab as proved by several attacks in the recent past, most recent near the Wagah border. The TTP may not have any overt relationship with groups like LeT and JeM but the possibility of cadres shifting loyalties has been a persistent feature of terrorist coalitions in Pakistan since 2001. For instance, Ilyas Kashmiri, a Pakistan Army commando, was a trainer with LeT before he parted company and set up Brigade 313 and aligned himself with al Qaeda and TTP. Kashmiri was killed in a Drone attack in June 2011.

The Pakistan Army's declaration of doing a `hot pursuit` of Fazlullah in Afghanistan is both misleading and disingenuous. It exposes the army's refusal to the see the writing on the wall, persist with the policy of denial and keep the `Good Taliban` protected.

In many ways, the Peshawar attack offers the Pakistan leadership a corner to turn around - it only needs to first define who is a terrorist?

(The writer is a Senior Fellow with Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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