After almost 3,000 people were killed on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush told world leaders that they were either with or against terrorists.
Pakistan, a country riven by competing impulses in a violent corner of the globe, has remained a bit of both. The storming of a school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar yesterday, in which Taliban gunmen murdered 141 people, including 132 children, made clear the high price of that bargain to the country itself.
“This is a decisive moment in the fight against terrorism,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told reporters in Peshawar. “The people of Pakistan should unite in this fight. Our resolve will not be weakened by these attacks.”
It is far from clear, though, whether the gruesome attack will be something like a 9/11 for Pakistan, where the Taliban are seen as a legitimate counterweight to U.S. interests.
“That element of anti-American feeling will always remain and complicate the public reaction,” said Sameer Patil, an associate fellow who focuses on terrorism at Mumbai-based Gateway House, a policy research group. “Even the increasing violence is seen through the prism of the U.S. war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.”
Children pray as they attend a candle vigil in Karachi, Pakistan, on Dec. 16, 2014 in memory of the victims of the Taliban assault on a school in the north western city of Peshawar.
Talat Masood, a defense analyst in Islamabad and a retired lieutenant general, suggested that amid the steady stream of photographs of dead boys and girls, their innocent faces smeared with blood, a line may have been crossed.
“The government and the army can convert this opportunity into a game changer,” Masood said, adding that they need to work together to crush the militants, something that hasn’t been a given in a country with a history of coups. “You can’t sit and wait for them to attack again.”
Beyond the image of Pakistan that’s portrayed to many Western audiences -- a renegade, nuclear-armed nation that’s home to radical terrorists -- at home the country is deeply conflicted.
On one hand, Pakistan has strategic interests in both maintaining a sizable role in neighboring Afghanistan after the U.S. draws down its troops, and countering Indian influence in the region with the help of its main spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, known as ISI.
On the other hand, many of the groups that might help the ISI accomplish those goals are committed to brands of militant Islam that can create unintended consequences -- attacks on Pakistan’s 196 million people, 96 percent of whom are Muslims. The ISI is widely seen as a small empire outside the reach of civilian leadership.
And so, Pakistan is both a place where terrorists have murdered more than 50,000 people since 2001 and where Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. special forces during 2011 in the military town of Abbottabad after officials denied for years that he was in their country.
The grim outcome was on display yesterday. On the main road near the school, dozens of parents and families waited in the cold for news about their missing children. Inamullah, a father, said one of his sons had been killed. He buried the boy at 8 p.m. while awaiting news of his younger son, still lost to the chaos of men with guns. “At least someone tell me where my son is,” he screamed.
The ISI was instrumental in creating the Taliban that fought Soviet forces with U.S. help and then gave Pakistan influence over Afghanistan after their withdrawal in 1989. Pakistan is also home to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group held responsible for a commando-style assault on Mumbai that killed 174 people in 2008. Though officially outlawed, its members operate freely; one of its founders, Hafiz Saeed, lives openly in Lahore and has been a frequent user of social media.
Seeing the threat
“The first positive thing that could come -- and, again, it’s kind of hard to talk about anything positive when you’ve got 120 or so people killed, mainly children -- would be that Pakistan would continue to see the threat to them from terrorism,” Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, outgoing chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at a BGOV breakfast yesterday in Washington. “They’ve got to see it.”
A wounded Pakistani student receives treatment at a hospital following an attack by Taliban gunmen on a school in Peshawar, on Dec. 16, 2014.
Militant groups in Pakistan are far from a unified front, splintering along factions and tactics. The Pakistan government has chosen to fight some and protect others, though it officially denies lending any support.
The “Afghan Taliban,” for example, has focused on fighting in Afghanistan. It has gotten support from Pakistan’s military and hasn’t targeted its host nation, said Jonah Blank, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation in Arlington, Virginia. The Pakistani Taliban, however, has “been at war with the Pakistani state,” he said.
Militant groups in Pakistan’s tribal areas united in 2007 to form the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP. While the military repelled a TTP offensive toward Islamabad in 2009, it resisted starting a ground operation into North Waziristan until earlier this year after a near-takeover of Karachi’s international airport in June.
The TTP has since sought to attack military-linked soft targets. A suicide bomber last month killed 55 people at an India border crossing guarded by troops. Many of those killed at the Army Public School yesterday were children of soldiers.
“The Pakistani military has never really wanted to launch an all-out war against the TTP; it much prefers to send its troops in every few years and give the TTP a bloody nose,” Blank said. “But today’s attack may well have changed the equation. When you go after someone’s kids, they tend to take that pretty personally.”