My city Peshawar is no stranger to terrorist attacks but the massacre at the Army Public School (APS) is particularly gut wrenching in that almost 132 innocent children and nine staff members were killed in cold blood. Grown men cried on Peshawar’s streets this tragic Tuesday. But the heart goes out to the mothers who would have dressed and fed them that morning only to see them bathed in blood later. It does not matter whether the children came from military families or civilian ones — they were our very own. There is no major neighbourhood in Peshawar that has not buried a martyred child in the last 48 hours. The surviving children are shell-shocked. They are either too scared to speak or narrate the horror that they just went through. The families of the martyred children are devastated and the composure of their friends is in tatters. Barbarism of this magnitude, where young children were killed en masse with Kalashnikov bursts and then hunted down the aisles and in classrooms to be shot and killed, is testing the resolve of one of the most resilient cities in the region. The bereaving families and traumatised children need immediate medical help, counselling and long-term support, which the federal and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governments must arrange right away. The devastated locals, however, are not asking for help.
The fundamental question Peshawarites, especially mothers, are asking is whether the supreme sacrifice of their children will go in vain again or will this be a watershed event from where on out one will see a change in Pakistan’s approach to tackling terrorism. The US was jolted into action on 9/11. The people of Peshawar and the region at large are going through a perpetual 9/11 but it has not shaken up the powers that be. What exactly would it take for the Pakistani civilian and military leadership to draw a line in the sand? How many more mothers have to lose their children before the security planners and enforcers realise that jihadist terror cannot be fought piecemeal? Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif has convened a meeting of all parliamentary party leaders in Peshawar and Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif has also reached Peshawar. What consensus the civil and military leadership will arrive at is not known as we go to press. But if history is anything to go by, one fears the focus and determination might dissipate no sooner than it did when Malala Yousafzai was shot. Within hours of the attack on Malala, the country was divided into pro- and anti-Malala camps. And then came the conspiracy theories dismissing that attack as a staged one and labelling her an agent of the US, India and Israel.
The former military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, has taken the lead in blaming India and the former Afghan president Hamid Karzai for the APS attack, which the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has already owned. General Musharraf happens to be the man responsible for allowing the foreign terrorists sanctuary in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), especially the North Waziristan Agency. He and his successor, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, refused to act against the massive terror infrastructure that the jihadists had built in North Waziristan right under the army’s nose. The Uzbek terrorists settled in North Waziristan on Musharraf’s watch. They brought in or started families and raised children there. The bilingual attackers were heard speaking Pashto and Uzbek during assorted terror attacks inside Pakistan; they are the second-generation Uzbek terrorists who grew up in Pakistan. In all probability, the APS attackers came from this Uzbek terrorist legion. Musharraf was also the architect of the good/bad Taliban distinction that has brought nothing but misery on Pakistan. The tin-pot dictator himself might be history but he does reflect a certain mindset within the security establishment, which still remains gung-ho about virtually colonising Afghanistan and giving India a bloody nose. Retaining the services of the ‘good’ jihadists is tethered to this zero-sum foreign policy. There is no chance that the APS attackers could have stayed the night(s) in Peshawar and then mounted their vicious assault without the help of some ‘good’ jihadists and their political apologists in Peshawar.
What the current civil and military leaders have to realise is that the distinction between the good and bad jihadists has to go before any anti-terrorism effort can be termed meaningful. The Taliban cannot be good for Kabul and bad for Karachi. Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) cannot be a poison just for Delhi and a potion in Lahore. The jihadist suicide attack on the Lycée Esteqlal — Kabul’s second oldest school — last week is as heinous as the havoc unleashed on the APS, Peshawar. Using jihadist proxies against secular Baloch separatists and nationalists and expecting them not to morph into another TTP is callously foolish. Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan, which is apparently winding down now, was a much welcome move under COAS General Raheel Sharif’s stewardship. Many jihadists — both good and bad — unfortunately escaped Zarb-e-Azb unscathed. The surge in the Taliban-Haqqani network attacks in Afghanistan is a clear indicator that they retain a bridgehead where they plan and train for these attacks.
A former CIA anti-terrorism expert and ex-advisor to President Barack Obama, Mr Bruce Riedel, wrote last week that there is no change in the “Pakistani support for the Taliban insurgency...The ISI participates directly in planning Taliban operations and target selection against NATO and Afghan targets...Mullah Omar, the shadowy leader of the Taliban who calls himself commander of the faithful, divides his time between Quetta and Karachi... The Haqqani network keeps an office in Rawalpindi...” What Mr Riedel has said is not new but it becomes highly significant in the wake of the APS attack and the resolve that the Pakistani civil and military leadership is expressing to go after all terrorists without distinction. The litmus test of the Pakistani leadership’s sincerity and success would actually be whether it cuts the Afghan Taliban and its Haqqani network affiliates loose, hands over Mullah Omar to Afghanistan and puts an end to LeT leaders professing jihadism from national monuments. Unless action is taken against all these hideous shades of terrorism, neither the massacre in my city will be the last one nor would it be the last city to go through such horror.
PS: General Sharif is off to Kabul apparently to demand extradition of the TTP chief, Mullah Fazlullah, whom Pakistan claims is in Afghanistan and orchestrated the APS attack.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com and he tweets @mazdaki