The horrendous attack on the army school in Peshawar has once again brought to public attention the pervasiveness of violence in Pakistan. Terrorism in the country is an almost everyday occurrence, but the killing of at least 135 school children and staff is a shocking outrage even by the standards of a nation already torn apart by violence. What could motivate such a terrible act and who are these extremists?
Actually, there are a many different extremist jihadist movements in Pakistan, and the Taliban itself consists of several distinct organisations. The Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), which has claimed responsibility for the attack, is distinct from the Afghan Taliban – which has criticised the attack as “unIslamic” – but it shares a common ideology and common objectives. According to General Petraeus, the former commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, there is a symbiotic relationship between all the different terrorist groups in this region – including al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, and Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM).
The TTP has focused activities on attacking and destroying the Pakistani state itself. It has carried out many suicide operations, such as the attack on the police training academy in Lahore, the attack on the UN’s World Food Programme Islamabad office and another on the Pakistani army headquarters in Rawalpindi all in 2009, and the bombing of two Pakistani Navy buses in Karachi on 26 April 2011.
Although the Taliban and other Islamist extremists are most deeply entrenched in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, they have people and sympathisers throughout Pakistan and have launched terrorist operations in the heartland of the Pakistani state (including in Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Karachi). The violent activities of the militant organisations that aim to bring about a collapse of the Pakistani state and its recreation as an Islamic caliphate have transformed Pakistan into what many consider the most dangerous country on earth.
The conditions in Pakistan are ideal for terrorist networks to thrive because of political instability, the rivalry between political leaders and the armed forces, a highly developed network of radical Islamists, an abundance of anti-Western recruits, and corrupt security services of limited competence. The violence – including kidnappings, suicide attacks and bombings – presents a constant risk to the life of ordinary people. In view of the pervasive violence and political instability, Pakistan has been ranked number 13 of the “most failed states” in the world.
Recent years have seen a shift in the Pakistani government’s relationship with the various groupings of the Taliban. In the past the Pakistani authorities have reacted with some ambivalence towards them. The Afghan Taliban was, until the events of 9/11, Pakistan’s ally and counted on its support. Many of the jihadist movements inside Pakistan were actively encouraged and supported by Pakistani intelligence services and used as proxy fighters against India in Kashmir and other places.
Indeed, even after Pakistan officially supported the US in its “war on terror”, it continued to provide some clandestine support to the Afghan Taliban. However, the Pakistani government and the army were unable to control the monster they created and the Pakistani Taliban became a threat.
As such, General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s army chief, has recently conducted operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in North Waziristan killing many Taliban fighters and the attack in Peshawar is probably an act of revenge. Now, the Pakistani government is co-operating both with the new Afghan government and the United States in combating the Taliban.
This is a new situation that has put the Taliban under severe pressure as the US has begun drone operations against the Pakistani Taliban for the first time with the encouragement of the government in Islamabad.
While this attack shows that the Pakistani Taliban can still mount operations, albeit against a soft target, it may be to its disadvantage in the long term. The attack may well cause many people in Pakistan sympathetic to their cause to become outraged by the mass killing of children. And, if more people in Pakistan turn against this kind of violence, then perhaps some good may come from this terrible tragedy in the longer term.