Today, Pakistan is a nation united in mourning after facing one of the most brutal terrorist attacks in its recent history. On Tuesday, a group of Taliban gunmen stormed a high school in Peshawar, initiating a killing spree that claimed at least 141 lives. Nearly all of the victims were students of varying ages — in addition to 132 students, nine teachers and staff members were among the victims. The attackers took no hostages and instead sought to kill indiscriminately, according to most eyewitness reports. Following a nearly nine-hour siege, Pakistani police officials were able to subdue all seven attackers, but tragedy had already unfurled.
Unsurprisingly, the attacks drew almost instant national and global condemnation. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif traveled to Peshawar almost immediately, and called for an emergency meeting between all political parties in the city for Wednesday. Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif, the man in charge of the military campaign against Islamic militants in the country’s tribal areas, also traveled to Peshawar. Tellingly, the two men did not travel together. Peshawar authorities declared three days of mourning in the wake of the attack. Across Pakistan, hundreds gathered for vigils from Karachi to Quetta to Islamabad. The Pakistani foreign ministry issued a statement reiterating the government’s commitment to fighting the Taliban, noting that “these terrorists are enemies of Pakistan, enemies of Islam and enemies of humanity.”
The attack temporarily put a halt to Pakistan’s domestic political turbulence. Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, called his supporters to refrain from attending a planned nationwide protest following the Peshawar attack. Khan’s planned protest was aimed at pressuring the Pakistani government to investigate allegations that Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) party won the 2013 general elections by illegitimate means.
The Taliban’s campaign against both educators and students received some prominence over a year ago, when Malala Yousafzai, the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, was attacked by gunmen for daring to go to school. Yousafzai, who received her Nobel Peace Prize just last week, noted that she was “heartbroken by this senseless and coldblooded act of terror.” “Innocent children in their school have no place in horror such as this,” Yousafzai remarked in a statement. “I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters — but we will never be defeated.”
Global reactions have been similarly emotional. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on all of India’s schools to observe two minutes of silence on Wednesday “as a mark of solidarity.” British Prime Minister David Cameron called the attack “deeply shocking,” noting that it was “horrifying that children are being killed simply for going to school.” “A house of learning turned into a house of unspeakable horror,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The Chinese foreign ministry issued a statement: “We are deeply shocked and saddened by the incident, and most strongly condemn on the terrorist attack.”
The Taliban and other related Islamic militant groups have long targeted government-run schools in Pakistan. Hundreds of smaller scale attacks have taken place in schools in the country’s volatile Kybher Pakhtunkhwa region. Additionally, the Taliban and other groups have targeted school buses. For the Taliban, these schools represent un-Islamic government authority. In the specific case of the Peshawar attack, another important factor was at play. The school in question lies on the edge of a military residential area and served Pakistani military families. One ostensible objective the attackers may have had was to shake Pakistani servicemen’s faith in the government’s ability to protect their children.
Although Pakistan tragically faces smaller scale terrorist attacks by the Taliban on a somewhat regular basis, this Peshawar offensive will strike deep at the nation’s core and intensify national unity in the ongoing struggle against the Taliban. The Pakistani military launched an offensive this summer known as Operation Zarb-e-Azb, with the backing of the United States, to root out and eliminate militants seeking refuge in the country’s mountainous North Waziristan region. The attack in Peshawar will challenge perceptions that the Pakistani military’s campaign is breaking the Taliban’s resolve in any way. While the attack may have risen out of desperation, it signals that the Taliban remain an enduring and persistent threat to Pakistani security.
What remains an outstanding problem for Pakistan is indeed the government’s inability to guarantee acceptable levels of civilian security. The Peshawar attack saw a death toll rivaling that of a 2007 Karachi suicide bombing that killed 150. This should be a stark reminder that while the Pakistani military attempts to address the country’s terrorism problem at the source with initiatives such as Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the country’s police and security forces must take serious steps to curb future attacks of this nature. While this will prove challenging for a nation of 180 million, allowing atrocities of this nature to repeat themselves can only lead to national disintegration and sorrow about Pakistan’s long-term prospects as a country.