The shocking slaughter of 148 people, including more than 130 children, at an Army-run school on Warsak Road in Peshawar (Pakistan) on December 16 has outraged the world. The massacre – the work of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – speaks volumes of the terrorist outfit’s anger and desperation following the killing of their associates in the ongoing Pakistan military operation, known as Zarb-e-Azb.
Responding to the Pakistan Taliban’s single deadliest attack, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif was categorical: The army would continue to go after the terrorists and their facilitators until they are eradicated. In an operation that has been underway since June, the military claims to have already killed more than 1,500 Taliban fighters. Very likely, then, this week’s attack was meant as a message for the Pakistan Army.
If so, it may well backfire. After this attack, determination to defeat the militants has never been higher. Certainly, some religious political parties, their leaders, and the clerics of religious seminaries continue to oppose the operation. But the vast majority of Pakistanis are behind the effort to eliminate the terrorists.
The success of the ongoing military operation in North Waziristan, a mountainous region of northwest Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, demonstrates that Pakistan is no longer a safe haven for any terrorist organization.
The army began the Zarb-e-Azb operation in June 2014, targeting hideouts following a bloody attack on Karachi Airport that ended the talks between the government and the Taliban. The effectiveness of the effort was underlined with the recent killing of a top al-Qaeda commander, Saudi-born Adnan el Shukrijumah, in South Waziristan. A drone strike has killed Uzbek militant commander Asad Mansoor Mehsud. A massive crackdown by police and ranges has meanwhile been launched in other parts of the country. Hundreds of militants have so far been killed, confirming Pakistan’s central role in the international war on terror.
Undoubtedly, Pakistan has been a haven for extremists or Islamists militants belonging to various outfits, including Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistani Taliban), al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jundallah, Jamaat ul Ahrar, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), and the Haqqani network. All of these radical groups follow the extreme political and religious views of Wahhabism or Deobandi fundamentalism. These groups have demonstrated their resilience, as they have been fighting the Pakistan army – the world’s sixth largest army – since 2004.
Islamist militancy in Pakistan has deep roots, that go back decades. The story of jihadists or Islamist militancy in Pakistan and Afghanistan begins with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. This was the Cold War, and the U.S. government poured money into assisting the jihadists. General Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s longest-serving head of state, helped the U.S. government in its fight. Pakistan supported the Afghan Mujahideen (freedom fighters) and trained jihadists to fight the Russians in Afghanistan.
Zia’s decision to get involved was a mistake, and Pakistan is still paying the price for it today as it fights those same jihadists. It was followed by another error: Pakistan’s decision to support the Taliban, a fundamentalist Pashtun political movement that emerged out of Saudi-funded madrassas as a political force in Afghanistan in 1994.
After Russia’s defeat in Afghanistan sectarian violence gripped Pakistan. Militants who fought in the Afghan war began targeting Shia Muslims, one of the two leading sects of Islam. Following 9/11, they declared war against the state, and used suicide bombers to kill politicians, clerics, law enforcers, intellectuals, and ordinary citizens. Pakistani authorities estimate that more than 60,000, including security forces, have so far been killed in suicide and other attacks, mostly since 9/11.
In Pakistan, the madrassas, or religious seminaries, are regarded as breeding grounds for religious terrorism. There are more than 46,000 of these schools, mostly founded during the last three decades, which usually attract students from poorer classes. They are considered a major factor in encouraging extremism and militancy in Pakistan. A majority of the madrassas belong to Ahl al-Hadith and Deobandi schools. Usually these seminaries are funded by Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia.
Although the association between militants and madrassas is obvious to the authorities, perhaps because of pressure from the Arab world the government seems helpless when it comes to taking action against the schools. In July 2007, the government of former President Pervez Musharraf carried out an armed operation (Operation Sunrise) against Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) and the adjacent Jamia Hafsa madrassa in Islamabad. The Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa madrassas were being operated by Islamic militants led by two brothers, Maulana Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi.
More than 100 people were killed in the operation, which caused severe problems for Musharraf (including his arrest in 2013 for ordering the operation) and made him an inevitable target for militant groups.
No More “Good Taliban”
But Pakistan once again took up the fight against the militants late last year, when General Raheel Sharif became Chief of Army Staff. Sharif put an end to Pakistan’s disastrous flirtation with the concept of “good Taliban” and “bad Taliban,” and declared that henceforth all militants would be targeted.
Under Sharif’s leadership, Zarb-e-Azb was launched on June 15. According to the military, the militants have to date suffered more than 1,500 killed, including local and foreign fighters. Dozens of hideouts and weapons factories have been destroyed. These successes are a reflection of the experience Pakistan’s security forces have earned through years of fighting terrorism.
The next challenge for the military to prevent the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, also known as IS and ISIL) from claiming a hold on the country. Although the Ministry of Interior insists that there is no sign of the terrorist group in Pakistan, intelligence reports have ISIS leaders traveling from the Middle East to Punjab province, where they are believed to have the support of members of Jundullah, one of a number of Pakistani terrorist groups that have pledged allegiance to ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
However, it is India that may be the real worry when it comes to ISIS on the subcontinent. The distribution of black t-shirts bearing the ISIS emblem among Muslim youth in the coastal town of Thondi in Ramanathapuram district in August has already attracted international attention. Further worries emerged after revelations that an ISIS Twitter account was being operated by an Indian executive out of Bangalore.
The horrific violence in Peshawar this week should be a reminder that Pakistan and India must be prepared to work together to keep the region free of ISIS and defeat the many home-grown militant groups.
Syed Jafar Askari is a Pakistan-based journalist.