Pakistan’s policy of nurturing militias as strategic assets came home to roost on 16th December when Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Jihadis shot 148 persons, including 132 students, at the Army Public School in Peshawar in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. The victims, mostly offspring of military personnel, were killed as revenge for Zarb-e-Azab, the army action against the Taliban along the lawless Pakistan-Afghanistan border; 1,600 Jihadis have reportedly been killed so far.
By grim coincidence, the attack came days after the ceremony awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Malala Yousafzai, a schoolgirl from the same Province who was shot in the head by the Taliban for championing education for girls. Schools have been hit previously as well, but each attack was viewed as a separate incident.
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called his Pakistani counterpart to offer condolences and all help in meeting the threat. India’s Parliament and schools observed a two minute silence in honour of the victims; several children wept in grief. This seamless national unity achieved by Modi was a far cry from the sickening politics over the Batla House encounter in which a valiant police officer lost his life battling terrorists. That aggravated minority politics is coming full circle with the Congress party considering a course correction by seeking feedback regarding its ‘anti-Hindu’ image.
In Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lifted a moratorium on the death penalty; two terrorists were promptly executed. Army Chief General Raheel Sharif and Inter-Services Intelligence chief Lieutenant General Rizwan Akhtar rushed to Afghanistan to discuss a joint crackdown on militants. Hitherto, Pakistan accused Afghanistan of not doing enough to uproot terrorist bases there, while Kabul said that Islamabad allowed the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network to operate freely on its territory and stage attacks in Afghanistan.
Gen Raheel Sharif reportedly urged Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to extradite TTP leader Mullah Fazlullah or allow Pakistani forces to pursue him. But the moot question is whether Pakistan would send Mullah Omar to face justice in Afghanistan, and cut ties with the Afghan Taliban (which has been killing Afghan and Nato troops), the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and the Haqqanis.
Pakistani media said the attack was planned by Mullah Fazlullah; the Taliban said Commander Umar Mansoor controlled it from Afghanistan. But Islamabad later said one Commander Saddam, killed in an encounter in Jamrud town, Khyber region, on the night of 25th December was responsible. The military launched air strikes against Taliban strongholds in the Khyber region and North Waziristan bordering Afghanistan.
Yet, it will be difficult for Pakistan to dismount the terrorism tiger. Hitherto, it has relied on the LeT to wrest Jammu and Kashmir from India. The Sipah-e-Sahaba, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Jaish-e-Muhammad want a sharia’h-based polity; all political parties have ties to some militant group. The Prime Minister’s adviser Sartaj Aziz frankly said Pakistan will not target militant groups which did not pose a threat to itself. Mr Imran Khan, whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party is part of the ruling coalition in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, refused to blame the Taliban even after it claimed responsibility; but he withdrew his street campaign against Prime Minister Sharif.
Former President Pervez Musharraf and Jamaat ud-Dawa’h chief Hafiz Saeed, architect of the November 2008 attack on Mumbai, blamed India for the slaughter. Gen Musharraf gave foreign terrorists refuge in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, especially North Waziristan, and created the fiction of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban.
Recently, while Gen Raheel Sharif was in the US, Hafiz Saeed held a big rally in Lahore and accused the Army’s anti-Taliban operations in North Waziristan of exempting the Haqqani network (‘good Taliban’). The authorities ran special trains to ferry people to the rally. It was only after the Peshawar attack that Nawaz Sharif promised to end the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban.
Insensitive to the changing narrative, the Pakistani judiciary granted bail to Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, the LeT operations leader behind the Mumbai 2008 attack. Even in jail, Lakhvi lived life king-size, planning operations with ‘cooperation’ from jailers and fathering a child! Embarrassed, the Government placed him under preventive detention for three months, which he has challenged.
The Lakhvi case highlights the weakness of the nation’s judiciary which has released nearly 2,000 terror accused in the past seven years. Acquittals include LeJ chief Malik Ishaq, allegedly behind the killing of 100 Shias and the attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team in Lahore in 2010. Meanwhile, India still awaits the extradition of Dawood Ibrahim, wanted for the Mumbai 1993 serial bomb blasts.