The Pakistani public has never before experienced a terrorist attack on a school in the northern city of Peshawar such as that which happened on Tuesday, December 16. According to the news reports, seven terrorists dressed in military garb and wearing suicide vests burst into the school in the morning hours, when hundreds of students were at their lessons. Reportedly they went from room to room, methodically and indiscriminately killing students and teachers. Pakistani commandos arrived a short while later, and managed to kill all the terrorists, but not before they had perpetrated their grisly work. According to the New York Times, 145 precious lives were lost, including 132 uniformed children and their teachers. The principal of the school also lost her life.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif went immediately to Peshawar to condole with the bereaved families. He vowed to eliminate all militants who have indulged in such acts for the past decade. Estimates of innocent civilians who have fallen victim at the hands of these terrorists number in the thousands. Responsibility for the current unprecedented attack has been claimed by the main terrorist group -- the Pakistani Taliban -- operating from the tribal areas bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although the scale of the tragedy is immense, one perhaps silver lining in the clouds is that it has unified all shades of public opinion in Pakistan that such persons need to be eliminated through military force, and that it is futile to try to negotiate with them. In other words, being beyond reason or redemption, they have to be rooted out throughout the country.
The wave of outrage crossing national boundaries has been buttressed by statements of support and sympathy from around the world. President Obama stated that "by targeting students and teachers in this heinous attack, terrorists have once again shown their depravity. Our hearts and prayers go out to the victims, their families, and loved ones." Malala Yousafzai, the 17 year old Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the same group two years ago for advocating education for girls, and who miraculously survived and has continued with her quest, said that she was "heartbroken by this senseless and cold blooded act of terror... I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters -- but we will never be defeated."( Malala's efforts earned her the Nobel Prize this year for Peace. She is the youngest recipient of the award.) Many other world leaders, as well as leaders of public opinion, have joined in this chorus of condemnation and sympathy for the victims.
It appears that the Pakistani Taliban have been put on the defensive by the universal outpouring of denigration at this unpardonable act. The terrorists have tried to justify their actions as a reprisal against the Pakistani army's ongoing operation in the tribal areas to root out militancy from this remote and inaccessible region. According to a Pakistani Taliban spokesman, an army school was chosen because "the government is targeting our families and females. We want them to feel the pain." This is a totally unjustifiable rationalization, as this group has engaged in random acts of terror for the past decade, which have terrorized the Pakistani population. The Pakistani Taliban wish to overthrow the present democratic dispensation, and replace it with their medieval version of governance. In their world view, women should be confined to their homes, and only come out, completely covered, accompanied by a male guardian. According to reporter Declan Walsh, (who has firsthand experience in Pakistan as a journalist,) the Pakistani Taliban have bombed or burned over 1,000 schools.
The Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 1979, which has been termed a "crime" by the Russian Nobel-Laureate Andrei Sakharov, led to an almost complete fragmentation of Afghan society. The United States, in the context of its existential Cold War rivalry with the former Soviet Union, encouraged the Afghan resistance and other Muslims from many countries to launch a jihad against these "godless" Communists who were ravaging Afghanistan. A huge amount of weapons and money was made available through Pakistan to the resistance. Unable to subdue the Afghan Mujahideen after 10 years of fighting, the Russians decided to cut their losses and leave Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban are a product of the civil war which was a byproduct of the vacuum created by the decade-long struggle to oust the Russians. Occupying Kabul in 1996, the Afghan Taliban, who were influenced by the austere version of Wahhabi Islam, kept fighting its opponents, which led to further fragmentation. Pakistan suffered a huge blowback as the tribal areas, awash with sophisticated weapons, were utilized by the militants to foist their ideology on the government and people of Pakistan.
The Pakistan army also apparently played a controversial role in encouraging some of these highly-militarized elements to join the Kashmiris in fighting against the Indian government in Indian-held Kashmir. These militants may have been assets once upon a time for the Pakistan army, but after the U.S. attack on Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 2001 for harboring the architect of 9/11- Osama bin Laden, and Pakistan's support for the U.S. action, these ideologically motivated persons turned against their former enablers. In 2009 the Pakistani Taliban, who are reportedly linked to the Afghan Taliban, occupied Swat Province, quite close to the Pakistani capital. The army had no option but to move against them and then expelled them from Swat, whereupon most of the leadership fled to Afghanistan. The current leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Mullah Fazlullah, is reportedly hiding in Afghanistan, and directs violent extremism against the Pakistani government from his sanctuary.
The school attack is a moment of reckoning for the Pakistani government, and more so for the Pakistani army, which is a major player in Pakistani politics. The chief of the Pakistan army immediately left for Kabul after the school attack to discuss how both countries could counter the destabilizing influence of the Taliban. It goes without saying that Afghan-Pakistan coordination and cooperation is absolutely essential in defeating the Taliban. I would, however, suggest that the Afghan Taliban may perhaps be more amenable to sharing power with the democratically-elected government in Kabul, compared to the Pakistani Taliban who want to overthrow the entire constitutional system in Pakistan. Be that as it may, in Pakistan at least the people are behind the government and army in exercising hard power to rid them of the virus of violent extremism.