The Taliban attack: Message Pakistan and the world can’t ignore
Illinois State University’s Professor and Chair of the Department of Politics and Government Ali Riaz is the author of Bhoyer Sangaskriti (The Culture of Fear: Political Economy of Terror and Violence in Bangladesh) and the editor of Religion and Politics in South Asia. He responds to the Taliban attack on a school in Pakistan.
Mass-scale violence is sadly not uncommon in Pakistan, and the Tahrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has shown few scruples in attacking civilians in the past, yet the massacre of school children in Peshawar on Tuesday is unprecedented by all measures. The attack on a church in September this year, which cost 80 lives, and that on a Shia shrine a year earlier costing 120 lives were ghastly, but they pale in comparison to what happened on Tuesday at a school campus. Simply stated, planning, coordinating and implementing, in cold blood, an attack on school children to kill as many possible was shocking even by the TTP’s dreadful standards.
That the attack was conducted on the doorstep of an army cantonment and on the children of mostly army personnel was meant to send a clear message to the Pakistani military. The TTP spokesperson not only accepted the responsibility for the heinous act, but justified sending the suicide squad saying that the attack was mounted to avenge a military campaign that had killed Taliban families. “We want them to feel the pain,” he said. This audacious statement reflects both the strength and the desperation of the TTP.
For the past few months the military had been conducting a massive operation against the Taliban in North Waziristan. The military had claimed success in their operation as the number of attacks by Taliban declined. But this spectacular attack demonstrates that the military operation has not succeeded in destroying the TTP’s capacity. The attack also reveals the desperation of the Taliban leadership. Taliban fighters seem to be on the back foot in a region where they previously operated with ease – but now their space has shrunk; therefore they wanted to take the fight to the military’s doorstep hoping that it will provide them some breathing space in their own terrain.
Whatever thought lay behind the calculation, this attack will help the TTP very little. If the TTP had expected the retaliation to earn them some support among the Pakistani people, they are bound to be wrong. No amount of twisted justification will be enough to convince anyone that killing innocent children in their school can be supported. Even the arguments that the Pakistani army has been killing children in Waziristan for years, particularly since their latest military operation, or that the US drone attacks had resulted in the deaths of children, will not hold water in this instance. Some might attempt to highlight the class difference between poverty stricken Waziristan and the well-to-do cantonment neighborhood and question whether the lives of children of the elites are more precious than those of the poor. However, morally speaking, deliberately targeting children and sending a suicide squad to kill them cannot be condoned by any sensible person, whatever their political persuasion. One can recall the 2004 siege of a Russian school in Beslan by Chechens, in which more than 300 people died. That did not help the perpetrators earn sympathy or support.
This massacre should serve as a turning point for Pakistani politics. There was no dearth of condemnation from Pakistani politicians since the incident began to unfold. From the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Justice Movement) leader Imran Khan, all have described the attack as “barbarism.” But they cannot shirk some responsibilities for the situation. One can hardly disregard the fact that the lack of consensus among them as to how to address the Taliban as a militant force on the one hand and the grievances that help Taliban to fester on the other have contributed to, if not engendered, the situation.
On previous occasions, in moments like these, analysts and observers have reminded the political leadership of their responsibilities, but all attempts had fallen on deaf ears. Will this be another of those moments? It could well be different, because this strike was at the very heart of the military establishment, not only institutionally, but personally. It won’t be surprising if the military now puts pressure on the civilian political leadership to provide the security apparatuses with carte blanche. If the military takes that route, this will put a serious strain on the fragile democratic institution.The onus, therefore, is on the civilian government to ensure that the military toes the line.
The army, despite its recent efforts to tame the Taliban, cannot claim that its leadership shouldn’t bear any responsibility. For decades, reports suggested a nexus between the military, particularly its intelligence agency ISI, and the Taliban. History aside, there were recent incidents which indicated a relationship between them. Besides, it is not only about the nexus between the Taliban and military establishment, but the policy of cultivating and using militant groups like Jeish-e-Muhammad, Sipah-e-Sahaba as ‘strategic assets’ which needs to be scrapped altogether. It is time that the Pakistani military make it clear what they plan to do in future. If this event does not make them rethink, nothing will. In any case, this incident will put the various Pakistani institutions to the test.
Although the TTP spokesperson didn’t say so, it’s not difficult to realize that another factor might have influenced the choice of the target. In the past week, Malala Yusufzai received her Nobel Peace Prize at Stockholm. It was a reminder to the world that Malala survived a Taliban attack and that she brings a message of hope to children around the world, particularly those who are facing a similar situation. The continued support for Malala, or as one of my journalist friends has termed it, ‘the global infatuation’ with Malala, has exasperated the Taliban more than anything else. This was the response of the Taliban, an open challenge to the world. I don’t think the world can ignore this message.
Ali Riaz can be reached via MediaRelations@IllinoisState.edu.
The commentary also appeared in The Daily Star in Bangladesh.