Islamabad is giving in to public pressure to ramp up its counterterror efforts and revise its policies in this regard. So far, that’s meant sidestepping the constitution to try terror suspects in military courts and lifting a moratorium on the death penalty for convicted terrorists.
A Pakistani army officer stands in front of a wall riddled with bullet marks inside the Army Public School attacked last Tuesday by Taliban gunmen, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014. The Taliban massacre that killed more than 140 people, mostly children, at a military-run school in northwestern Pakistan left a scene of heart-wrenching devastation, pools of blood and young lives snuffed out as the nation mourned and mass funerals for the victims got underway. (AP/Muhammed Muheisen)
Pakistan has been grappling with the reality of the threat posed by radicalism for over a decade. While Pakistanis have mostly grown accustomed to the litany of threats and attacks the Taliban has rained upon the provinces, a recent massacre confounded and shocked the nation.
In an attack which bore the marks of a well-planned attack, Taliban operatives opened fire on the Army Public School in northern Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, as well as the administrative center and economic hub for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, on Dec. 16. Over 500 teachers and students were in the school at the time of the attack.
After a nine-hour gun battle, the military finally managed to break the militants’ siege.
Shireen Mazari, a high-ranking leader of Pakistan’s Tehreek-i-Insaf party, told the press that a total of 146 people had been killed, including 140 children, and another 113 were injured. (The exact number of dead and injured remains unconfirmed.)
With emotions running understandably high given the barbaric nature of the attack and the perpetrators’ apparent willingness to inflict harm upon the young and vulnerable, state officials have given in to extreme public pressure to harden their tone toward radical militants.
Indeed, the day after the Peshawar massacre, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif confirmed that he had lifted the moratorium on the death penalty for all terrorism-related cases, making it impossible for convicts to petition for clemency.
Then, on Dec. 24, Pakistan’s political leadership announced that in order to accommodate calls for swifter legal proceedings in terror-related cases, the state would upend the constitution and transfer suspected terror militants to military courts for trial.
Keen to offer support in such trying times, U.S. President Barack Obama reiterated his willingness to work together with Pakistan, a longstanding partner in the region, to defeat terror. On Dec. 16, Obama said in reaction to Peshawar attack: “We stand with the people of Pakistan, and reiterate the commitment of the United States to support the Government of Pakistan in its efforts to combat terrorism and extremism and to promote peace and stability in the region.”
Meanwhile, with Pakistanis increasingly calling on their government to ramp up measures against radicalism and demanding a definitive end to the Taliban’s reign of terror, Sharif has been forced to review his government’s counterterror policy and evaluate how Pakistan found itself a sitting duck before such a formidable, but elusive, enemy.
Keen to step away from past failures on account of political enmity and regional wrangling, Islamabad is reportedly willing to work with Kabul, rather than against it, to stamp out terror from the region.
Sharif announced on Dec. 16 that “the distinction between good and bad Taliban will not be continued at any level,” implying that all Taliban operatives — whether Pakistani or Afghan — will be dealt with as imminent threats to national security.
In a move which rather emphatically illustrates the trauma that the Peshawar massacre inflicted upon the collective, generating a need for retribution and retaliation against all those labelled terrorists, Gen. Raheel Sharif, chief of staff of the Pakistan army, tweeted on Dec. 17: “Asked PM Nawaz Sharif to hang all terrorists. More than 3,000 terrorists should be hanged in next 48 hours.”
His tweet was quickly followed by a series of unsanctioned air strikes against Taliban positions in the regional terror flashpoints North Waziristan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
With Pakistan’s top military brass calling for Taliban blood to avenge the death of its youth, experts like Shahid Abbasi have warned that Islamabad could be playing directly into the hands of radicals, engaging in a cycle of violence and retribution instead of focusing on eradicating the roots of terror — religious radicalism.
The rise of the Pakistani Taliban
With Pakistanis reeling from an unprecedented attack on the country’s youth, officials have faced increased criticism and the state has been called upon to intervene against the grave national threat. Yet, as Pakistan grieves for and mourns its dead, many are warning that the Peshawar massacre is a result of state negligence and gross political failures.
“The Peshawar school tragedy should stand a reminder of Islamabad’s counterterror incompetence, officials’ myopic understanding of radicalism, and pandemic political and military miscalculations,” Abbasi, a political analyst and journalist, told MintPress News.
“Islamabad’s desire to use the Taliban as a political weapon against Afghanistan, thus restricting and limiting its campaign within Pakistan national borders, when it knew fully well that terror operatives were setting up shop on its borders, put the country in harm’s way. It was really just a matter of time before Pakistan would pay for its officials’ political arrogance.”
Pushed out of Afghanistan under the impetus of the United States in 2001, Taliban operatives sought refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas, aiming to turn northern Pakistan into a new terror hub. From a largely disbanded group of Islamic radicals, the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was recognized by Pakistan as a terror organization in 2007, some six years after its militants crossed the border into Pakistan.
While the TTP has often been presented as an Afghan export and an unforeseen repercussion of the Afghanistan War, Afghan Prince Ali Seraj argued that the Taliban has always been a Pakistani creation — a tool used by Islamabad to cultivate instability and exert control over a weakened Kabul.
“Afghanistan has never been the problem. It was Pakistan which exported terror into Afghanistan to sow unrest and assert control over the region’s greatest geo-strategic asset,” Prince Ali told MintPress in an exclusive interview in November.
An umbrella organization composed of various Islamist militant groups based in the northwestern FATA along the Pakistan-Afghan border, the TTP was responsible for 35,000 deaths between 2003 and 2009, according to Mohsin Hamid, a writer based in Lahore, Pakistan.
In a report for the New York Review of Books written in September 2011, Hamid wrote: “Some 35,000 Pakistanis, including 3,500 members of security forces, have died in terror and counterterror violence. Millions more have been displaced by fighting. It is difficult to convey how profoundly the country has been wounded.”
“I think the fact that Pakistan only recently masterminded its first ever counterterror policy following a decade of a violent and bloody terror insurgency movement speaks volumes,” Zaid Hamid, a Pakistani political commentator, told MintPress.
Interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan announced in February that Islamabad had unveiled its first ever “national security policy” before parliament a day after it was formally approved by the cabinet.
Abbasi echoed Zaid Hamid’s comments, noting: “Pakistan’s resolve against terror has been limited to Washington’s calls for actions within the perimeters of Washington’s counterterror policy. Islamabad has failed to understand terror as a direct threat to its sovereign integrity. Peshawar has changed the narrative.”
“And yet I feel we’re missing the mark. Terror cannot be answered or defeated by lead. Ideas do not fear the barrel of a gun.”
The radicalization of counterterrorism work
Dec. 16 marked a decisive crossroads in the country’s fight against terror. Animated by a common anger, an equal desire for retribution and for justice for the slain children, Islamabad responded to the people’s vengeful cries by way of counterterror radicalization.
With the military taking over all legal proceedings in terror-related cases and the lifting of a moratorium on capital punishment, Pakistan has entered uncharted counterterrorism territories, its officials determined on taking radical and extraordinary measures to appease the public.
In a televised address to the nation, Sharif declared: “I have a very loud and clear message for those terrorists who killed our innocent children: There is no space for you in this country. The pain that you inflicted on us, you will receive a befitting response for that. The innocent children have drawn a line with their sacred blood.”
He added that alongside military courts, the state would actively crackdown on the TTP’s financial and communication apparatuses.
Such action came amid impassioned declarations from the head of Pakistan’s army: “#PakArmy will come at you #Taliban & will destroy you. And they will not target women & children. They are not coward like you,” tweeted Gen. Raheel Sharif on Dec. 17. (His Twitter account, @PakArmyChief, has since been suspended.)
Zaid Hamid has warned that such steps will only lead to the dissolution of Pakistan’s democratic institutions, giving the military power over civil institutions.
“The establishment of military courts will of course make for expedient trials, giving the people a sense of achievement, but ultimately it will lead to abuses of power and a weakening of the state,” he told MintPress.
Tariq Mehmood, a Pakistani legal expert and former lawyer and judge, also expressed strong reservations, telling MintPress he feels Pakistan is making “rash and irrational decisions” that endanger the integrity of its civil institutions.
In a clear sign of the times, Imam Abdul Aziz, a cleric also known as “Mullah Burqa,” was served with an arrest warrant after he refused to condemn the Taliban for its attack on school children.
No longer a lone wolf
As Pakistan hardens its tone, it’s also breaking away from its long-standing “lone wolf” strategy by reaching out to its neighbors. Pakistan and Afghanistan are reportedly willing to set aside their political differences for the sake of regional security, determined to stand as a barrier before the threat of the Taliban.
Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Dec. 17, that his country would answer Islamabad’s calls.
“There is a new phase of relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the de facto prime minister told Amanpour, nothing that it is “the right moment for all of us to decide once and for all that terrorists will not serve any country’s national interest.”
“Right up until December 2014, Pakistan and Afghanistan have remained locked in a bilateral blame game, unwilling to understand that terror radicals understand neither borders nor national loyalties,” political analyst Zaid Hamid told MintPress.
“If anything, Peshawar opened officials’ eyes, on both side of the borders, to their own failures. We can only hope that officials’ vows of cooperation and collaboration will materialize on the ground and give way to a new counterterror era,” he further emphasized.
Indeed, the Taliban’s monstrous feat in Peshawar appears to have jolted Kabul and Islamabad out of their torpor, forcing the former enemies to unite against a common foe.
“I talked to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, President Ashraf Ghani talked to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and if there is one lesson in what has happened in Pakistan, [it is] that these terrorists no wonder what’s the history of them, or what they were doing earlier, at the end of the day, they will turn against every state and every state institutions,” Abdullah told CNN.
But while the Taliban may have forced Pakistan and Afghanistan to revisit their bilateral ties in view of opposing terror together, therefore potentially fast-tracking the elimination of terror cells across the broader region, experts such as Abbasi have warned that the broader notion of counterterrorism still needs to be revisited.
“Terror is only the manifestation of a perverse ideology — Islamic radicalism. Unless we destroy the very concept of radical Islam, groups like the Taliban will breed and multiply,” he warned.