By Zeeshan Salahuddin
The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) ended 2014 with one of the most audacious, callous acts of terrorism in the history of contemporary extremism. In the early hours of December 16, six Taliban attackers stormed the Army Public School in the cantonment area of Peshawar, capital of the northern Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (KP) province. They wore Frontier Constabulary (FC)–a police force responsible for maintaining law and order in Pakistan–uniforms, and were equipped with weapons, bombs, and suicide vests. Over the course of the next several hours, they murdered 141 people, 130 of them children. The siege ended several hours later with all six perpetrators dead.
Pakistan has been at the epicenter of the war on terror since the 9/11 attacks. Over the course of the last 13 years, extremist groups have carried out some of the most heinous acts of violence against the Pakistani people—a punishment for the government’s allegiance with the U.S.
The indigenous chapter of the Taliban movement made inroads into most Pakistani cities, and until recently, had carved out its own territory in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region bordering Afghanistan. The Pakistani military and law enforcement agencies have conducted dozens of operations and strikes against the extremist networks. The three most notable were Operation Rah-e-Raast and Operation Rah-e-Nijaat in 2009, and Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which began on June 15, 2014. The latest one killed over 1,000 enemy combatants, and wrenched control of the North Waziristan Agency in FATA away from the Taliban and associated factions.
Since 2003, some estimates put the loss of human life at 55,516, with civilians accounting for 19,751 of that total. Terrorist attacks have targeted the security apparatus and civilian centers alike—from airports to military bases to even churches and mosques. There have also been several attacks on schools, but child deaths in those cases were considered collateral damage, not direct targets.
Indeed, this incident is especially odious because it specifically targeted children of military servicemen. The TTP claimed responsibility in a statement released after the attack, asserting that it was an act of vengeance for the latest military operation against their assets. Photos of the six attackers were also released.
The organization’s terror attacks have grown increasingly bold and audacious in recent months, even though their frequency has decreased. However, the TTP has lost a lot of traction this year—their hardline stance earning the ire of rival and affiliated groups, causing a splintering and the formation of several offshoots. The net result also feeds their recent terror campaign, where attacks have become more pronounced, brutal, and impudent, in an attempt to stay relevant, fuel recruitment, instill fear, and give the impression that the military operation has done little to dismantle the network.
The sheer scale and barbaric intensity of the incident has galvanized people in Pakistan like no other event in the last 13 years. The military, politicians, the media, civil society, and even the traditionally conservative and apologist religious right have vehemently condemned the attack and denounced the perpetrators.
The ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, beleaguered in the last few months by political unrest over alleged electoral rigging in the May 2013 elections, called for an All Parties Conference (APC) the very next morning. The APC attracted leaders from both sides of the dispute in a much-lauded display of political solidarity. The hope is that this solidarity translates to unity of thought and purposeful action in the coming months and years.
Pakistan lacks a consolidated national security policy due to political deadlocks and bureaucratic stalemates. Despite legislation and ample research, the political leadership has been unable to come to a consensus on the issue and enact a national command, control, and communication system for combating terrorism.
Protests and vigils line the streets and bazaars of every major city in Pakistan. The public is quite simply distraught over the senseless murder of innocent children, some as young as 10. Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif made an unscheduled visit to Afghanistan, with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lieutenant-General Rizwan Akhtar, demanding that Kabul hand over Mulana Fazlullah, TTP’s chief and primary mastermind. Fazlullah is thought to be hiding in Afghanistan.
Both the Afghani government and the Commander of Coalition Forces in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, assured their cooperation. Meanwhile, the military immediately responded, carrying out dozens of airstrikes on suspected terrorist hideouts. Sharif lifted the moratorium on the death penalty for convicted felons in terrorism-related cases. And Imran Khan ended his sit-in at the capital, vowing to set aside his difference and strive for political unity in this time of sorrow.
Though Tuesday’s events are undeniably tragic, they may serve as a unifying force in a country politically and ideologically divided. The military, in particular, is working toward this unity—pushing lawmakers to devise and adopt policies that attack both the apparatus and the ideology behind extremism.
Zeeshan Salahuddin is a journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan.