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Is the Peshawar Attack a “Game Changer”?

On December 16, 2014, Pakistan witnessed the worst terrorist attack in its history in which innocent children were brutally targeted. Seven Pakistani Taliban militants stormed the Army Public School in Peshawar and killed 132 children and 9 staffers.

The banned Pakistani Taliban terrorist organization, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), immediately claimed responsibility for the attack and called it revenge for Operation Zarb-e-Azab – the Pakistan’s Army offensive in North Waziristan that started in June of 2014. TTP spokesman, Muhammad Umar Khorasani, said, “The army targets our families. We want them to feel our pain.”

Following the attack, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced that there will be no distinction between good and bad Taliban and the government described the attack as a “game changer.”

Army Chief General Raheel Sharif visited Afghanistan and demanded Kabul hand over Maulana Fazullah, the TTP chief, who is believed to be hiding in the border areas between the two countries.

Pakistan and Afghanistan agreed to enhance their military and intelligence cooperation against terrorist elements. However, there are unconfirmed reports that the Pakistan Air Force killed Maulana Fazullah on December 20.

Pakistan has a history of using militants as proxy worriers in its struggle against India in Kashmir. During the Cold War, backed by the US and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan created a vast structure of religious schools “madrassas” to train Mujahideen fighters against the Soviets in Afghanistan. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States abandoned Pakistan to deal with the mess.

In the 1990’s Pakistan turned these Mujahideen fighters against India in Kashmir and also supported the Afghan Taliban to gain control of Kabul. Pakistan wanted to have a friendly government in Kabul that would support Pakistan and stay neutral in its conflict with India.

After 9/11, Pakistan decided to support the United States against the Taliban and al Qaeda, which turned the Taliban against Pakistan. Until the attack on the school, Pakistan had distinguished between “good” and “bad” Taliban, in which “good” Taliban fight only against India and Afghanistan while “bad” Taliban attack within Pakistan and want to replace the Pakistani government with an Islamic regime to implement Sharia law.

The TTP was formed in 2007 and operates along the Pak-Afghan border. Despite American pressure Pakistan was reluctant to take action against the TTP. In a recent interview, the former Director General of the ISPR said that in 2010 a decision was taken to launch an operation against the TTP. However, former Army Chief Ashfaq Pervez Kayani balked because he believed that it was not possible to secure a friendly Afghanistan without the help of the TTP after the US withdrawal.

In June 2014, the TTP managed to pull off deadly attack on the Karachi airport, which left 28 dead, including 10 militants. Their plan was to hijack planes and destroy government installations but security forces killed the attackers before they were able to implement their plan. After the attack Army Chief Raheel Sharif decided to initiate Operation Zarb-e-Azab against the TTP in North Waziristan. The TTP leadership fled to the Kunar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan.

The post-Peshawar attack scenario shows some positive signs, including an agreement with Kabul to enhance cooperation but it still does not show any paradigm shift vis-à-vis India. Despite the fact that the TTP claimed responsibility for the attack, Hafiz Saeed (allegedly involved in the 2008 Mumbai attack), Hamid Gul (instrumental in creating the Taliban during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan), and Pervez Musharraf, blamed India for the attack.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, despite his anti-Pakistan and hardliner reputation, strongly condemned the attack and he appealed to all schools in India to observe two-minutes of silence “as a mark of solidarity.” Two days after the attack, Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, the leader Lashkar-e-Taiba and one of the masterminds of Mumbai attacks in 2008, was granted bail citing a lack of evidence. After India’s protest, Islamabad detained Lakhvi for another three months under the Maintenance of Public Order Act. As India currently stands with Pakistan, this move erodes their confidence in Pakistan and raises suspicion.

The brutality of the Peshawar attack should prompt Pakistan to rethink its preoccupation with India. India does not constitute a daily threat to Pakistan, but extremist groups do. Pakistan’s policy to tolerate extremist groups that have an anti-India agenda is not sustainable. All terrorist and extremist organizations are interlinked ideologically and there is a flow of manpower between them. There is a need to crack down on these groups and dismantle the ideological and material infrastructure of Jihad.

As India and Afghanistan mourn with Pakistan in the wake of the school attack, it is time to cooperate and collectively eradicate the cancer of terrorism from the region. Pakistan’s army offensive operation to eliminate the TTP is a positive step but it should not tolerate other extremist elements. Pakistan should avail itself of this opportunity to work with India and Afghanistan to form a collective front against all types of extremism. The horrors of this recent attack should be enough to shake the collective conscience of the political and military forces to rethink Pakistan’s security policy along the lines of eradicating extremism and poverty with education and economic development.