Will the Taliban School Massacre Change Pakistan’s Basic Security Orientation?

It is always dangerous to be optimistic about sagacity and proportionality among the policy makers in Pakistan. Yet the ghastly December 16, 2014 slaughter by the Pakistani Taliban of over 145 people—132 school students, 10 of their teachers, three soldiers and some number of terrorists—in Peshawar might just have revolutionized the attitudes and calculations of both the elites and the general public.

On that day, the Tehrik-i-Taliban (the so-called Pakistani Taliban) conducted a calculated attack on a school in Peshawar: scaling the wall surrounding the school, barricading the doors, then moving methodically room-by-room to coral the students, trap them in their seats, and systematically slaughter them like animals but only after immolating a teacher in front of them. The Pakistani Taliban took responsibility for the massacre and warned that others would come in its wake if the army did not halt its anti-terrorist sweep in the North Waziristan. That cold-blooded savagery against innocent children finally inflamed popular attitudes which for many years tolerated terrorist attacks within Pakistan that would have galvanized, not just enraged, citizens in other countries who would have demanded a response by the security forces.

In Pakistan, by contrast, both the public and the security forces have accepted the many earlier Taliban onslaughts as if part of the natural, unchangeable, landscape. For several reasons, including the justification of its own budgets and its military rule, the army has consistently insisted that Pakistan’s primary, almost only, security threat comes from a projected attack by India, especially a cross-border offensive. Consequently, the army has concentrated its resources in the east and engaged in skirmishes in the high mountains of Jammu and Kashmir. Until recently, its leadership has insisted that the insurgent strikes were much less critical. The overwhelming number have been in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Since these are areas populated by “tribals,” their victimhood never really engaged the attention or concern of “civilized” Pakistanis and certainly not of the elites.

But the Pakistani Taliban—a general term for several different insurgent groups loosely connected at best—have a religious and ideological dimension reaching well beyond tribal conflicts. As in Afghanistan, they mean to remake Pakistani society and institutions according to their various interpretations of Islamic law and purity. Although heartland Pakistanis somehow dismiss the chaos and violence within the FATA, the fact is that the insurgents have struck, not just in FATA and other parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, but also in Lahor and Islamabad, have occupied a good part of the Swat Valley until the army drove them out, and, even, in 2009, penetrated the army’s own general headquarters 15 miles from Islamabad killing 30 people praying at an army mosque inside. Indeed, Karachi, the commercial center of Pakistan, has become increasingly violent. Many parts are no longer under any government control, indeed are in a kind of war-zone between Pakhtuns, Mohajirs, and other communities as they vie for territory, authority, and plunder within the city. In most other countries, these assaults within the core cities and areas of the country would be called what they are, a fundamental confrontation and a national crisis. In Pakistan popular sympathy for the insurgents and their religiosity vies with antipathy to their violence, fear, and excess. After Army Chief of Staff Zia ul Haq staged a military coup in 1977, declared martial law, and “Islamacized” the previously largely secular army, the security forces themselves are ambivalent about the insurgents and their objectives.

Only recently and only in the face of their operations beyond the FATA has the army taken the fight to the insurgents, most notably to North and South Waziristan. The student slaughter was ostensibly retaliation for that response. This was not the first such strike on schools by the Pakistani Taliban. There have been hundreds and many thousands more on ordinary civilians. But this was not just any school. It was the Army Public School and Degree College. Most of its students are the teenage sons and daughters of serving army staff, especially officers. This was an assault against the army’s soft underbelly: its defenseless children. To make the point clear, instructions had been given to spare “innocent” children, so the assailants asked the military children to identify themselves and assassinated those who did.

This onslaught went beyond any precedent. "A lot of the children are under the benches,” a Pakistani Taliban radioed. “Kill them,” came the answer. "The smaller the coffin, the heavier it is to carry,” said Defense Minister Khawaja Asif. "We found our children drenched in blood, with their bodies on top of each other," said the Peshawar spokesman for the army. “They have taken the light of our lives.” Even the Taliban in Afghanistan, with which the TTP is closely affiliated, criticized the "deliberate killing of innocent people, women and children (as being) against Islamic principles” and offered condolences to the relatives of the victims.

The combination of such a systematic slaughter and the explicit, intentional targeting of the military’s children could not have created a more pointed challenge. The immediate response was defiant: “We are undeterred. We will not back off," said Defense Minister Asif. The suspension of the death penalty was reversed. Two terrorists convicted of previous murders were hanged immediately and over 30 have been executed since the reversal. The National Assembly unanimously passed a constitutional amendment that would establish military courts to try civilian terrorism suspects and accelerate their trials.

The question is whether that response will endure long-term and whether there will be a change in attitude among the general public. Will the army and the government confront and engage the full range of insurgents? Will they get public support? And will the public revise its views about the threat posed by all extremist Islamists, including the jihadi groups? That will require some fundamental changes.

First, it will require a reorientation of the threat assessment, if only to redeploy the army’s limited assets. As noted, the military has for decades positioned itself, its forces and its weapons on full alert to respond to a hypothetical attack from the east. But India has initiated no military advance since the partition of the Indian Raj nearly 70 years ago, although it did support the 1971 successful independence conflict in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. The recent engagements in Kashmir have resulted in returning to the status quo ante. The most recent war, in Kargil, was unquestionably initiated by Pakistan not India. Moreover, India has been the aggrieved party on several occasions, for example the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai by Pakistanis under the direction of the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate. It should be clear by now, especially after the carnage at the Army Public School, that the more imminent threat to the integrity of Pakistan’s state and society comes from Pakistan’s own domestic terrorists, not India.

Second, Pakistan will need to deal with the internal Islamization of the army itself. One reason for the insistence on the menace posed by India is the complementary unwillingness of the army to accept that Islamists could be a hazard rather than an asset. The ordinary Pakistani soldier is recruited from relatively poor families also sympathetic to the militants that recruit from the same families. The army that once was committed solely to the defense of Pakistan against all its threats, one theoretically indifferent to the religion of its citizens, is now infused with cadres who want to change Pakistan fundamentally. So a reorientation of the army to oppose insurgents depends on reversing or at least blunting Zia’s Islamist legacy.

Third, although not as vital, the army would be best advised to oppose all insurgents, including those oriented toward Afghanistan, not just the so-called Pakistan Taliban. The army’s understandable inclination is to limit its exposure. Its reluctance to engage those insurgencies directed at Pakistan itself hardly disposes it toward taking on Afghanistan’s as well, especially given the mutual antagonism between the two governments. Culpability lies in Kabul as well as in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Each country blames the other for providing safe-haven, even encouraging the insurgents directed against the other. Both have complementary enemies and self-interest should dictate common cause. But each faults the other and both are correct in their charges.

These would be major, almost tectonic, shifts for Pakistan which it now seems willing to make. They require fundamental social, cultural, and political reorientations, not just reallocations of limited resources, and for the entire society, not just for the army. Until December, “Pakistan’s 9/11” as the Pakistani’s call it, neither Pakistan’s military nor its civilian leadership, let alone the entire country, showed much sign of such a dramatic turn. But the butchery in Peshawar was an assault against the country’s fundamental sensibilities and ethics and a direct assault against the army.

Whether that happens is the gravamen of whether the widespread outrage in mid-December was anything more than a passing fury and, more important, whether Pakistan is at last prepared to confront its own existential dangers.

Gerald F. Hyman is a senior adviser and president of the Hills Program on Governance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.

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Gerald Hyman
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Office of the President