After Peshawar, Expect Business as Usual in Pakistan
Last week, the Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP or “Pakistani Taliban”) outraged the world when it attacked an Army Public School in Peshawar. The attackers sprayed bullets frenetically, killing 145 persons among whom 132 were children. Ostensibly, this slaughter was a retaliation for the Pakistan army’s ongoing security operations in North Waziristan against those elements of the Pakistani Taliban who could not be persuaded to leave Pakistan to either fight Americans and their allies in Afghanistan or kill Indians in and beyond Kashmir. Amidst the bloodshed, Pakistan and international observers alike hope that such a watershed event will jolt Pakistan out of its somnolence and take its terrorist problems seriously. However, as with most things in Pakistan, such optimists should brace for disappointment.
Being a Student is an Occupational Hazard
Pakistan is the most dangerous place to be a student. Between 2009 and 2012, there were more than 838 attacks on schools in Pakistan. Terrorists have destroyed hundreds of schools, murdered teachers and academics, and even recruited children from public schools and madrassahs (religious seminaries) for suicide attacks. But this attack was different. First, although the school had sections for male and female students studying in the fifth through twelfth grades, the terrorists focused their heinous efforts on the boys’ section.. Second, the death toll was unprecedented. Third, it was an army public school. The majority of the students were themselves the children of military personnel in the Peshawar area. Fourth, unlike generic attacks on schools intended to terrify by attacking prominent state institutions, the terrorists selected this school because they sought to target the sons of specific army officers. They had even prepared a hit list for the gruesome task. In an emailed statement, the Pakistani Taliban claimed that “more than 50 sons of important army officers were killed after being identified.” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif described it as “the biggest human tragedy Pakistan may have ever seen.”
Business as Usual?
As the country mourned the loss of its children, Nawaz Sharif declared to the world that Pakistan would “continue the war against terrorism till the last terrorist is eliminated.” He assured global and domestic audiences alike that Pakistan would not differentiate between “good and bad Taliban.” In an effort to reassure his citizens that his government would deal with terrorists seriously, he even suspended the moratorium on the death penalty for terrorism-related cases. The moratorium had been in place since 2008. The spokesperson for Pakistan’s powerful military, Major-General Bajwa, bellowed, “For the military, there’ll be no discrimination among Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, Haqqani network or any other militant group.” Pakistan’s army chief travelled to Afghanistan where he met President Ashraf Ghani. Both vowed that the two countries would fight terrorism together. Some observers, such as Peter Bergen, echoed Pakistani talking points and opined that this atrocity “may prove as pivotal to Pakistan’s national security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the United States.”
Despite the upbeat assessments of such Panglossians, it is nearly certain that no matter how heinous this attack was, it will not motivate Pakistan to abandon its long-held reliance upon a flotilla of Islamist militant groups who operate with impunity in Afghanistan and India. After all, Pakistan has used Islamist militants as tools of foreign policy since 1947. With the acquisition of an existential nuclear deterrent as early as 1980, Pakistan became ever more bolder in its reliance upon these proxies. As Pakistan’s nuclear umbrella expanded, it became increasingly confident that India would not retaliate, nor would the United States muster the requisite scrotal fortitude to deal appropriately with this twinned menace of nuclear weapons and terrorism.
In fact, some optimists saw their hope for a new Pakistani policy on terrorism dashed even before all of the young victims were laid to rest. On December 18, two days after the attack, an Anti-Terrorism Court in Islamabad announced the bail of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s (LeT) notorious operations commander, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, citing a lack of evidence against him.
The court ordered him to post a bond of 500,000 rupees (approximately $5,000) before he could be released. The move sparked outrage in India because Lakhvi was the mastermind behind the multi-day siege on India’s mega-port city of Mumbai in November 2008. In that operation, ten LeT gunmen operated in teams to assault numerous targets across the city. Before Indian forces at long last managed to put an end to the melee, the terrorists were able to kill 165 persons (including 28 foreigners) and injure another 293, the majority of whom were Indian. The release of Lakhvi could have potential importance for a revivified terror campaign in India. In September and October of this year, Pakistan’s army used shelling as a cover to insert record numbers of terrorists associated with LeT and another group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, into Indian-administered Kashmir.
Chagrined by the court’s decision on Lakhvi on the tails of the attack and worried that it would fuel further dubiety about Pakistan’s commitment to a “total war” on terror, the Sharif government moved to contain the damage. The government announced that he would be detained for another three months under the Maintenance of Public Order. In practice, it hardly matters whether he remains in jail or walks free. After all, Lakhvi’s tenure in jail was really more of a protective detention, as he continued to plan and execute operations with the support of his jailers. He had a luxury suite. He was free to meet with his cadres and others of his choosing. He enjoyed liberal conjugal visits and even fathered a child during his time as an inmate.
LeT is an important ally of the Pakistani deep state. Unlike other militant groups that fractured and gave way to the TTP, LeT has never attacked within Pakistan. It has remained a loyal proxy, restricting its operations to Afghanistan—where its operatives kill Americans, Indians, and Afghans, among others—and to India, in and beyond Kashmir. LeT remains loath to upset Pakistan’s military and intelligence agency, the ISI. After all, with their support, LeT enjoys unfettered latitude to recruit, fund raise, train, and plan operations from the safety of Pakistan.
LeT’s very existence in Pakistan and the unfettered active support it enjoys across the Pakistani state belies Pakistan’s assertion that it will not distinguish between good and bad terrorists. How can Pakistan expect the world to believe that it is no longer distinguishing between those useful killers who murder at the behest of the Pakistani state, like those of the LeT, and those it seeks to eliminate because they kill Pakistanis?
If Pakistan were seriously committed to extirpating Islamist militancy from its soil, it would have to not only eliminate the Pakistani Taliban, it would also have to dismantle and disable the LeT; the Afghan Taliban whose leadership resides in Pakistan’s Balochistan province and beyond and which enjoys extensive active state support; other so-called Kashmiri groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad, which it has nurtured to kill Indians; as well as the Ahl-e-Sunnat-wal-Jamaat (ASWJ known formerly as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba-e-Pakistan) which had killed thousands of religious minorities in Pakistan.
Then, There’s The Tiresome “Blame Game”
It is true that Pakistanis are in mourning for this tragic and senseless loss in Peshawar. However, outrage does not mean that Pakistanis blame the culpable parties. LeT’s leader, Hafiz Saeed, spoke to crowds massed in Lahore in his Punjabi-influenced Urdu to denounce the assailants: India. He was not alone in fingering India as the culprits. Former President Musharraf weighed in during a television interview:
Do you know who is Maulana Fazlullah? He is the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan commander. He is in Afghanistan. And I am reasonably sure that he was supported by former Karzai government and RAW [India’s external intelligence agency] to carry out terror attacks in Pakistan.
Similarly, during a popular television program, “infotainment celebrity,” Dr. Amir Liaquat explained to his rapt audience that the abominable crime was an Indian plot staged within Afghan territory. Unfortunately, such buffoonery is all too common. Indeed, many Pakistanis tend to believe that India—or sometimes even Israel or the United States—is behind the various terror attacks and even floods in Pakistan.
How can Pakistan’s leaders credibly assert to their citizens and to the world that they take this menace seriously when they fail to take responsibility for the existence of terrorists and when they assiduously seek to externalize blame for their woes? Why would anyone believe that Pakistan’s military is discontinuing a long-held policy of distinguishing between “good militants” who operate on its behalf in Afghanistan and India and those “bad militants” who kill Pakistanis? The world should believe Pakistan has turned over a new leaf only if and when Pakistan forthrightly acknowledges that these incidents are due to blowback rather than some mysterious foreign hand, and when it first stops actively supporting the murderous menagerie it has nurtured and then works to permanently dismantle them.
No doubt, Pakistan will leverage these deaths to argue for continued American and international support for its selective war on terrorism. No doubt, Americans and their allies will continue writing checks, even if the checks grow smaller over time. However, there should be no doubt that many tens of thousands of Pakistanis are going to die before the Pakistan army abandons jihad as a tool of foreign policy.
Washington must be clear that as long as it pursues policies of appeasement and inducements, it is subsidizing the problems rather than ameliorating them.
Christine Fair is an assistant professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. She is the author of Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War.
Photo credit: Al Jazeera English