by Zia Sarhadi (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 11, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1436)
The horrific murder of nearly 140 school children in Peshawar has caused great anguish and anger in Pakistan. Unless there is a comprehensive approach to this problem, a reaction in anger will only escalate the cycle of violence.
Words fail to fully convey the horror that was perpetrated at the Army Public School in Peshawar on December 16. How could people calling themselves Muslims shoot and kill hundreds of students and teachers in cold blood? The killings have shocked Pakistanis of all strata of society that usually greet such atrocities with a shrug and a yawn.
When the shooting ended nearly eight hours after the attack, it had left more than 140 people dead. The death toll has since climbed to 149, including the seven terrorists that perpetrated the bloodbath. The overwhelming majority of dead were students, most of them shot in the head. The death toll may rise as others succumb to injuries.
Jamaatul Ahrar, one of the breakaway factions of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), led by Muhammad Umar Khorasani, claimed responsibility for the attack. In a statement the group said it attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar in revenge for military operations in North Waziristan that have killed their women and children. “You killed our women and children, we have killed yours. You caused us pain, now you taste the pain and anguish.”
Ehsanullah Ehsan, spokesman for Jamaatul Ahrar, however, contradicted the claim by condemning the attack three days later. The mastermind of the attack is reported to be Umar Naray (naray in Pushto means slim or skinny) from Mohmand Agency, who also goes by the name Umar Khalifa Adinzai. According to Pakistan Army intercepts, Umar Naray was based in Nazian district of Afghanistan’s Nagarhar province. This was the information Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif accompanied by the Director of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lieutenant General Rizwan Akhtar shared with Afghan officials during an unscheduled visit to Kabul on December 17. General Raheel demanded action against this individual as well as against Mulla Fazlullah, head of the Pakistani Taliban who is based in Afghanistan’s Kunar province. He demanded that Fazlullah be handed over to Pakistan. He also met the ISAF chief, General John Campbell making the same request. President Ashraf Ghani assured him that Afghan soil would not be used for anti-Pakistan activities. Campbell gave similar assurances but whether this would actually materialize is a different matter given Fazlullah’s close links with the Afghan intelligence agency.
What happened on that fateful day in the army-run school in Peshawar is well known. The gory details have been recounted endlessly on Pakistani television channels. There were a total of seven terrorists dressed in army uniform who scaled the rear wall of the school and after cutting through the barbed wire, entered the school premises. They went straight for the main auditorium where paramedics were providing first aid training to students. Most of the children were gunned down there.
A female teacher who pleaded with the terrorists to spare the children was doused with kerosene, set on fire and burnt alive. The school headmistress, Tahira Qazi was shot and killed in her office before one of the attackers exploded his vest blowing himself up. All the attackers were wearing explosive vests; this is how they all died: by committing suicide and killing others with them.
“We have killed all the children in the auditorium,” one of the attackers told his handler based in Afghanistan. “What do we do now?” he asked. “Wait for the army people, kill them before blowing yourself up,” his handler replied.
The ghastly aftermath of the attack — picking up the bloodied and traumatized students shot but still alive and rushed to hospitals, picking up the riddled and stiffened bodies of others that had died and collecting forensic evidence — was shown in all its gory details on television. The entire city was shut down. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared three days of official mourning and rushed to Peshawar as did General Raheel who cut short his visit to Quetta where he was chief guest at a passing out parade of soldiers.
Nawaz Sharif also convened a meeting of all political parties on December 17 in Peshawar to collectively respond to this latest atrocity. Politicians of all stripes attended. Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf leader Imran Khan called off his four-month long dharna (sit-in protests) at considerable loss to his political campaign when he had the government on the ropes. He said he took the decision in the larger interest of the country. At the All-Parties Conference Nawaz Sharif ordered Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan to come up with specific recommendations within seven days to deal with the crisis.
Following the Peshawar carnage, there has been palpable rise in public anger against the Taliban. People want the terrorist menace to be dealt with firmly. Acres of newsprint have been devoted to commentary of all kind; television stations are constantly talking about the massacre and how to deal with those responsible. Much is also said about what happened and how. What is less discussed is why it happened except some commentators venting anger at their opponents.
Here are some snippets. Soon after the Peshawar carnage, Ghulam Ahmed Bilour of the secular Awami National Party (ANP) attacked Imran Khan whose PTI party is in power in the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa Province (KPP). He said if Imran Khan cannot provide security in the province he is running, how can he run the country? This was beneath contempt. The ANP was in power in the province but was wiped out by Imran Khan’s tsunami in the last election. Bilour’s anger at PTI’s success is understandable even if his diatribe is completely misplaced.
Others dug into history selectively picking up examples from the past to justify their well-entrenched positions. One of the lowest comments came from Pervez Hoodbhoy who teaches physics at universities in Islamabad and Lahore. In his opinion piece in the Karachi-based secular newspaper, Dawn (“This wasn’t the last atrocity,” December 20, 2014), Hoodbhoy targeted General (retired) Hamid Gul, his son Abdullah Gul, and Imran Khan. He accused General Gul and his son of indulging in “conspiracy theories” and chastised the PTI chief of never having called the Taliban terrorists.
This is what Hoodbhoy wrote, “… Pakistan must scorn and punish those who either support terrorism publicly or lie to us about the identity of terrorists. Television anchors and political personalities have made their fortunes and careers by fabricating wild theories. For example, retired Gen Hamid Gul and his son Abdullah Gul have adamantly insisted multiple times on TV that suicide attackers were not circumcised and hence not Muslim. Though body parts are plentifully available for inspection these days, they have not retracted earlier claims.”
If the armchair warrior living in his lavish house in Islamabad with manicured lawns and lined with comfortable sofas in the drawing room would care to venture outside and visit places like Hangu or Kahi in the KP province, he would find the evidence of uncircumcised Taliban attackers. This correspondent can confirm from talking to residents of Kahi that following one operation a few years ago in which several “Taliban” fighters were killed, they were found to be uncircumcised. Local residents had undressed them to wash their bodies before burial. But how can Hoodbhoy find the time to visit such places — has he even heard of them? — when he is so busy with his endless pilgrimages to the US embassy in Islamabad!
He complained that Imran Khan called him an American agent during one television talk show in 2009 and even threatened him physically after the show. If he is not an American agent, Hoodbhoy should sue Imran Khan for defamation. One wonders why he has not done so instead of venting his anger in a newspaper column.
Let us, however, return to the question of why this attack occurred. Nothing happens in a vacuum and an attack of this kind was expected. After the military launched its operations in North Waziristan last June, the Taliban vowed to retaliate. Such operations are bound to affect ordinary people, and they did. The vast majority of people from North Waziristan were displaced. There are also credible reports of some soldiers roughing up even respectable families on “orders from above.” Such crude tactics were not necessary. And the threat of Taliban retaliation should have been taken seriously and appropriate measures put in place.
Teachers at the Peshawar school had raised concerns about their vulnerability, especially pertaining to the rear wall. If this is true, why was security not beefed up at the school, especially around the perimeter walls? More importantly, was there a failure of intelligence or did someone dropped the ball? If the ISI was able to intercept communications between the attackers in Peshawar and their handlers in Afghanistan, did it not have any information about the planning and execution of this attack?
Katherine E. Brown, Lecturer at King’s College at the University of London, wrote in an opinion piece for CNN (December 18, 2014), “TTP violence cannot be divorced from the violence carried out by the state and state agencies in Pakistan against civilians in countless military operations, through police brutality, curfews, drone strikes and extrajudicial ‘disappearances.’” This simple truth, apparent to an outsider, seems to have eluded the armchair warriors of Pakistan. They want the state to use more violence against the Taliban and crush them. Does the state — military and civilian — have the capacity to do so and also deal with the consequences?
While Nawaz Sharif has said there would be no distinction between the “good” and “bad” Taliban, indirectly admitting that this has been the case so far, will it be put into practice? What about his party’s close links with groups like Lashkar-e Jhangvi and Lashkar-e Taeba from whose cadre many rank and file Taliban and indeed even some leaders have emerged? Will this relationship end? There is also the question of the army’s own dubious relationship with some of these groups.
One can imagine what the Afghans might have said to General Raheel’s request to extradite Mulla Fazlullah to Pakistan, “Please hand over leaders of the Afghan Taliban sheltered in Pakistan and also stop the Taliban’s cross-border raids into Afghanistan.” Pakistani leadership needs to think through these issues carefully before plunging headlong into another disastrous adventure. Unfortunately, Pakistani politicians and generals have a tendency of reacting emotionally without evaluating their policies fully. The North Waziristan operation falls into this category. In fact, the entire war on terror that the US has foisted on Pakistan, has been an unmitigated disaster. The secular elites are calling for more of the same.
There is also considerable skepticism about the politicians’ ability to carry through on their promises. Loud rhetoric is no substitute for carefully crafted policies. Making tall claims is a time-tested habit of Pakistani politicians, especially the Sharif brothers and those around them. Many commentators have said that the whole tragedy will disappear into the memory black hole after a few weeks. This would be a great pity since it requires serious reflection and sound policies, not knee-jerk reaction like hanging a few convicted terrorists. After all, people that are not afraid to die — in fact they come with explosive vests tied to their bodies to die after carrying out their grisly assignment — cannot be deterred by hangings.
The Pakistani establishment needs to ask some serious questions. Where do the Taliban get their funding and weapons from, and who spawns the ideology of hate that has run amok in Pakistan? Are the elite prepared to confront the bitter truth that the toxic ideology of hate comes on the gravy train from Saudi Arabia? Many of them, including the Sharif brothers, are beneficiaries of the tight relationship with the Saudi regime that has also sponsored a vast network of madrasahs in Pakistan that have produced such monsters.
Pakistan’s subservience to the US that has pushed the country onto this disastrous course must also be evaluated honestly. Secular commentators are loathed to bring up this subject — they are not fools, their bakhsheesh would stop — but people must raise these questions loudly and clearly. There should be no sacred cows. The Peshawar tragedy offers another opportunity. Such questions should have been asked a long time ago, especially in the aftermath of the repeated massacres of Shi‘is in Quetta or the myriad other suicide bombings targeting Shi‘is in Pakistan.
Is there a will to formulate a policy that is based not only on the military option but also contains political and economic dimensions to alleviate the grinding poverty of the people? This will require a drastic change in the lifestyle of the elite. There is no evidence that the elite are prepared to make such changes even after the tragedy of Peshawar.
The political class is made up of cowards and opportunists; they only think of their own survival and interests. The musclemen are too intoxicated on the power of their US-supplied weapons to think through carefully the consequences of their actions. It is the poor masses of Pakistan that have paid the price for such ill-conceived policies. And they will continue to suffer because the elite are simply not prepared to make any meaningful changes or admit that their policies have failed.