By Zoha Waseem:
Heart-breaking images from Pakistan’s north-western city of Peshawar flooded news channels around the world today as over 140 people, including 132 children, were killed in one of the deadliest attacks ever to take place in the country. In a rescue operation that lasted over eight hours, six militants associated with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (which eventually claimed responsibility for the attack) were also killed by the armed forces of Pakistan. The site of the siege, Peshawar’s Army Public School is not just for the children of army officials; most of its students are children of civilians. The attack has received widespread condemnation from within and outside Pakistan.
At around 10AM in Peshawar, militants equipped with suicide vests, guns and grenades entered the Army Public School via a graveyard at the back of the school, breaking a wall to make their way in and reportedly setting alight a car they had used. The school is divided into four blocks. According to a press conference by the Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (DG ISPR), militants entered an auditorium at the centre of the premises where students had been gathered in the morning. They opened fire, causing children to run towards the two exits available. The militants then began indiscriminately firing at the children on both exits, resulting in bodies piling up.
A gun battle ensued between the militants and Pakistani commandos, as the premises were cordoned off and the militants found themselves cornered into one of the four blocks. A search and rescue operation began to secure the over 900 students and members of staff inside the school. Reports of hand grenades being hurled at security forces and IEDs being planted across the school were also revealed. Over 130 children were wounded, while 132 have been reported to have died thus far. Seven SSG officers have also been injured. The principal of the Army Public School, Tahira Qazi, has also been killed.
DG ISPR has claimed that intelligence agencies know which group was behind the attack and who the militants were communicating with, but the agency has so far refrained from disclosing these details. The nationalities of these militants are also still unkown to the public. According to DG ISPR, there appeared no desire on the part of the militants to take any hostages. The idea was to claim as many lives as possible, without surviving the attack. The siege brought the entire country to a standstill and it bore the markings of a carefully planned and executed attack.
Tehreek-e-Taliban’s (TTP) spokesman Muhammad Umar Khorasani told a media agency that his group, which is reportedly headed by Mullah Fazlullah, was responsible for the attack. This is the same group that shot the seventeen-year-old Nobel Peace laureate, Malala Yousufzai. Khorasani has made the following remarks regarding the attack.
‘Our suicide bombers have entered the school. They have instructions not to harm the children, but to target the army personnel. We targeted the school because the army targets our families. We want them to feel out pain. It’s a revenge attack for the army offensive in North Waziristan.’1
Mullah Fazlullah’s faction of the TTP is being targeted in an army-led security operation (Operation Zarb-e-Azb) in North Waziristan that began in June 2014, shortly after the attack on Pakistan’s busiest airport in Karachi that killed around 30 people. TTP-affiliated groups have repeatedly vowed to retaliate against the Pakistani army for this operation.
Peshawar, in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is in a critical location. Close to the Khyber Pass that links Pakistan with the Afghan border, Peshawar’s peripheries have been largely insecure and it has frequently been in the news for militant attacks. It is the second-largest Pashtun city in Pakistan after Karachi. A large number of Afghan migrants have integrated into Peshawar’s urban population (an estimated three to four million people).
One of the key strategies to accompany Operation Zarb-e-Azb should have been the implementation of widespread security operations in urban areas of Pakistan, to secure and protect its cities from an influx of militants escaping from the northern areas of Pakistan. Cities like Peshawar and Karachi provide militants the ideal landscapes, criminal networks, and underground economic support to camouflage, regroup, and prepare for retaliatory onslaughts against the security forces of Pakistan and its civilians. For these urban areas, the government of Pakistan needs to ensure that the police and paramilitary forces are equipped and trained appropriately to avoid attacks and combat security breaches in an efficient manner. Such attacks, including the one in Peshawar today, have been predicted since the moment Zarb-e-Azb began.
Security operations now need to continue relentlessly in the cities of Pakistan, such as the one ongoing in Karachi. That said, the successes of these can only be measured (if at all) in due time, depending on how sustainable these operations are, and to what extent they can be independent of political influences and corrupt practices.
They also need to be given the support of the Pakistani government and people. The provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Tehreek-e-Insaaf, has been staging protests and sit-ins around the country’s major cities because of the grievances its leader Imran Khan holds against the Islamabad government (led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his political party, Pakistan Muslim League-Noon) for allegedly rigging the 2013 elections. Imran Khan has repeatedly grinded urban areas to a halt, demanding an end to corruption and electoral rigging, but has long kept a soft stance against the Pakistani Taliban.
It is high time the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa gets its priorities in order. Because of the endless media attention his political party and its tactics receive, Operation Zarb-e-Azb appears to have receded into the background when it should have been provided with constant coverage and analysis. The operation, many would argue, now needs to be expanded.
In the same vein, it is also time for the Pakistani establishment to abandon its policy of picking and choosing between the ‘good Taliban’ (those who support the Pakistani army and are supported by them in return) and the ‘bad Taliban’ (those who target Pakistani security officials and aim to overthrow the state). It needs to be accepted that any organisation that puts at stake the freedom and liberty of the people of Pakistan should not be tolerated or entertained. These policies have complicated and then terminated all previous negotiation processes between the government and the militant groups. They have also hindered counter-terrorism efforts by security personnel across the country.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, what is lacking in Pakistan’s efforts in countering terrorism, and that has been brought back in the news following the attack in Peshawar, is the lack of a policy or strategy on how to deal with these groups in Pakistan. The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), which was founded last year after much political bickering between different branches of the state claiming authority over it, has yet to become operational and formulate any strategy on countering militants in Pakistan. The importance of policy-making by NACTA has also been emphasised in Pakistan’s first ever National Internal Security Policy (NISP), which was unveiled earlier this year.
The Peshawar attack is a clear demonstration that Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan remains undefeated and is prepared for the long haul. It is also a grave reminder that this is Pakistan’s war and that civilians are still the primary targets for militants (between 50,000 and 60,000 Pakistanis have been killed since 2001). It is also critical to understand that this war is not about Islam, or any religion for that matter, as no faith can advocate the senseless massacre of innocent people. This is about revenge, intimidation and fear. Hitting security forces and government officials may strike Pakistan’s muscle; indiscriminately gunning down and slaughtering children in broad daylight targets the very heart of the country.
Zoha Waseem is a doctoral researcher at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. You can follow her on Twitter @zohawaseem.