By Kamran Arif. Kamran is the Co-Chair of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, and a current student on the LLM International Human Rights Law and Humanitarian Law programme. You can follow Kamran on twitter: @KamranArif
Tuesday 16 December 2014 appeared to be another routine day at the Army Public School in Peshawar. At around 10 am, when most of the Students were busy taking their end of term examinations, the sound of gun fire shook the school. Over the next few minutes several Taliban gunmen dressed in paramilitary uniform entered the school building. Armed with automatic rifles the gunmen went from classroom to classroom, shooting indiscriminately at the students and their teachers. Where the terrified children laid down on the floor the attackers walked past shooting them in the head. Military commandos were immediately called in. The ensuing firefight lasted more than eight hours as the gunmen fought to the death.
The massacre left 131 children and 14 adults dead and a further 121 children and 3 adults injured. Among the victims were children as young as seven. This was by far the most senseless and brutal terrorist attack that this conflict riddled country has ever experienced. Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the country’s largest terror group, claimed responsibility for the attack, going so far as to release pictures of the assailants to prove its claim. The TTP spokesperson claimed that the attack was an act of revenge for the military operation launched against the TTP in its stronghold of Waziristan, in Pakistan’s lawless Tribal Areas.
That evening as Peshawar prepared to bury the 131 children, eyewitness accounts of the killings and graphic images of the death and destruction in the school began to appear in the media. The barbarity of the attack shook the whole country. It was literally a shock beyond words. So fierce was the public outrage that even the Afghan Taliban had to issue a statement distancing itself from the attack. The Government too came under pressure to act. The Prime Minister promised action and called for an All Parties Conference the next day. The unofficial moratorium on the Death Penalty was lifted for terrorist related offence.
Peshawar is no stranger to terrorist attacks. Since 2006 attacks on the civilian population have become a regular occurrence. This year alone Peshawar has experienced 6 suicide attacks which have left 42 dead and 137 injured. Just last year, a TTP attack on the All Saints Church in the city resulted in the death of 81 worshippers.
The attack on the Army Public School did not come out of the blue.
TTP has for several years threatened schools to stop imparting what they term ‘western’ education. In the last few years TTP has systematically targeted schools, destroying more than 750 schools in the KPK province alone. Most of these schools were, however, destroyed in the dead of middle of the night but that is not to say that TTP always shied away from targeting children. In October, 2012, TTP gunmen targeted then 15 year old Malala Yusafzai for campaigning for girls’ right to education. Earlier this year Aitazaz Hassan, a fourteen year boy in the Hangu District grappled with a TTP suicide bomber, who was trying to sneak into his school. Aitzaz ended up giving his life to save hundreds of his school mates.
TTP emerged as a coalition of militant groups based mostly in Waziristan in 2002. To begin with TTP was not particularly effective, it was only due to the Government’s initial reluctance to launch an operation in the country’s Tribal Areas and later a series of ill-advised peace deals with TTP that led to TTP controlling large parts of territory in Waziristan. TTP draws inspiration from the Afghan Taliban and share some of their goals but the two groups are at odds on a number of issues, including the question of attacks on Pakistan’s military forces. The TTP sees the Pakistan army as an ally of the US, but the Afghan Taliban oppose such attacks for strategic reasons. The Afghan Taliban operates partly out of Pakistan’s tribal areas, with rumours that this is possible consequent to Pakistan’s tacit support. In turn, Pakistan classifies the Taliban into two broad categories the ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Sartaj Aziz a senior adviser to the Prime Minister recently summed it up “Some of them are dangerous for us and some are not. Why must we make enemies out of them all?”
This classification irks the more liberal political parties in Pakistan, including the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pukhtun Nationalist Parties such as the Awami National Party (ANP), which desire more peaceful and friendly relations with neighbouring countries. The country’s powerful military establishment and political parties on the extreme right see the need to counter India’s rising influence in Afghanistan as central to Pakistan’s long term strategic interests and for this reason have a soft corner for the Afghan Taliban. In addition it is thought that having powerful allies in Afghanistan will considerably bolster Pakistan’s prospects of getting oil and gas via a pipeline from the landlocked Central Asian Republics.
Previous military operations against the Taliban have remained controversial as they have tended to target the ‘bad’ and not all militant groups in the Tribal Areas. Critics, in particular PPP and ANP have alleged that on the ground there is no clear difference between the two groups and such distinctions render the military operations useless.
TTP is not without support in the country and nor is it the only armed group with an extremist agenda. Since the days of General Zia’s Martial Law in the 70’s, the Pakistani establishment has actively supported religious fundamentalist groups to counter nationalist movements within the country and to achieve foreign policy objectives. The domestic influence of such groups is evident in the rise of religious intolerance in the country, instances of which range from attacks on members of the religious minorities to violence around the blasphemy issue. For this reason some political parties question the wisdom of restricting action to the TTP while leaving other groups intact. The State’s reluctance to take action against all armed groups in the country is considered a major hurdle in developing a cohesive counter terrorism strategy. However, with the US departure from Afghanistan imminent, major shifts in Pakistan’s counter terrorism strategy seem highly unlikely.
If any good has come from recent events it may be that the TTP has lost on another more important front. After Tuesday’s attack it has totally lost the sympathy of the majority of the country, including in Pukhtun areas. The memory of this brutality attack will stay with the people for a very long time, and for the people of Pakistan the TTP will forevermore be seen in the light of this attack. As a popular Pushto proverb puts it “when your child dies, you bury him in your heart. He only leaves this world when you do.”
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.