Pakistan’s Schools at War

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Pakistan’s Schools at War

Can the country stop the killing of its students?

Pakistan’s Schools at War
Credit: REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

Around 9 a.m. on January 20, four Taliban-affiliated gunmen entered Bacha Khan University, Charsadda in Pakistan’s volatile Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. By around 12:30 p.m., all four of them lay dead in the boys’ hostel. They had been gunned down by local security forces, but not before 21 people, mostly students and staff members, had been killed.

This was the second high-profile attack on a Pakistani educational institute in 13 months. On December 16, 2014 the Army Public School in KP’s capital city Peshawar was attacked by militants, killing 144 people, including 132 schoolchildren. The gut-wrenching scenes from the APS attack are believed to be the defining factor behind Pakistan uniting to launch the much touted National Action Plan (NAP) against militancy and extremism.

“Had it not been for our security guards everyone would’ve forgotten APS,” the BKU Dean of Sciences Abdus Sattar told The Diplomat. “There were over a hundred female students and teachers in the Admin block and our valiant guard Shehzad kept them occupied and diverted the terrorists away from the admin section.”

Shehzad Ali, who was guarding the Admin and Arts block on January 20, says he only had seven bullets on him that day. “There was a lot of fog, which worked both in our favor and against us,” he said while talking to The Diplomat. “While we couldn’t see the militants, they couldn’t locate their targets either. But with limited bullets, and no idea about the number of attackers, I did not have too many choices. Thankfully Allah was with me that day.”

Since the attack Ali has invested his own money in a bigger gun and a bulletproof jacket.

BKU Vice Chancellor Fazlur Raheem Marwat told The Diplomat that the security guards overcame many handicaps to defend the campus. “We have limited resources. But our guards overcame their limitations to defend the lives of students.”

Red Alert

Following the BKU attack, a red alert was issued to educational institutions nationwide. While BKU announced on the day of the attack that it would shut down indefinitely, schools all over KP were to close down for that week.

Punjab government then announced that educational institutes would remain closed from January 26 until January 31, owing to “cold weather and fog.” Reports eventually confirmed that security threats were the reason behind schools being shut down all over the country, resulting in a standoff between the government and the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation (APPSF). The fears was confirmed by the Taliban, which issued a video threating schools all over Pakistan. Schools were eventually reopened last week with beefed-up security.

Michael Kugelman, the senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, says securing these targets is no easy matter. “You won’t necessarily prevent a massacre simply by adding more guards. There were several dozen guards at BKU and while they likely averted a more deadly attack, they weren’t able to avert it altogether,” he says.

“There needs to be a combination of interventions – on the one hand, you want to have more trusted, well-trained security personnel in place. But on the other hand, you want to invest in the technologies that can help prevent attacks – such as installing motion sensors at key entry areas.”

Security analyst Ejaz Haider, the editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV, concedes that guarding all schools is neither possible, nor needed. “Not all institutions can be guarded but not all institutions will be attacked either. A terrorist attack looks for a force-multiplier effect. APS was a perfect target because the army runs that school,” he says. Haider believes the government needs to draw a list of institutions that can potentially and possibly be attacked. “There’s a cost but it’s not higher than the cost of an attack going through and claiming lives,” Haider believes.

Armed Teachers

Following the BKU attack the KP Home Ministry announced that it would be issuing free gun licenses for teachers who show an “authority letter” from their institutions. KP had started firearm training for provincial teachers after the APS attack.

Syed Hamid Hussain, a chemistry professor at BKU protected many students during the attack, before he was killed. “Professor Hussain’s bravery is commendable, but I would never carry a gun myself,” Marwat said. “According to provincial regulations, our staff members are free to get guns for themselves. But I believe it creates scenes of panic and generates insecurity.”

Haider agrees that arming teachers is a bad idea. “Simply possessing a weapon doesn’t mean that one also knows how to use it in a fire-fight, which is a whole lot different from putting bullets in an inanimate target at a range,” he says, adding that false bravado can get people killed.

Haider argues that schools need to go through proper drills, instead of randomly arming teachers. “It is much better, in combination with conducting drills, to try to get to safety than – unless one is trained in fieldcraft – to fight it out. Weapons on campuses in untrained hands can also cause accidents because very few people know about gun safety,” he says. “As for the case of Dr. Hussain, we only have some witness accounts and it is difficult to judge how effective he was against the terrorists and even whether he would still be alive if he hadn’t chosen to shoot at them with his pistol, not really a very effective weapon against assault rifles.”

Kugelmen also believes arming teachers is a recipe for disaster. “It sends a troubling message, and also increases the possibility of accidents that could lead to tragedy,” he says.

State Failure

Kugelman adds: “The fact that arming teachers is even being discussed – and in some cases implemented – is a strong indication that many Pakistanis feel their government has failed to provide them with security, and they have to take matters into their own hands.”

KP-based Awami National Party (ANP) leader Bushra Gohar says arming teachers highlights the state’s failure. “Security is not the teachers’ responsibility. A teacher’s job is to teach,” she says. “The provincial government is abdicating its responsibility of providing adequate security and transferring it to the schools. The schools are being flooded with guns, which has serious psychological and security implications. Schools have become garrisons or sub-jails.”

“It is outrageous that the Bacha Khan University’s vice chancellor was held responsible for the attack. Instead of going after the attackers and closing down terrorists’ factories and safe havens, FIRs have been lodged against schools and security responsibilities transferred to teachers. This is a clear violation of the Constitution and contradicts the state’s commitment to citizen’s security.”

Gohar continues: “(Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf Chairman) Imran Khan wants a judicial inquiry for everything under the sun, but there has been no judicial inquiry over the APS or BKU attacks. The APS victims’ parents are asking for it. We are all asking for it.”

Soft Targets

The BKU attack marked a rise in attacks on soft targets in Pakistan. Last month a polio office and bus stop were attacked in Quetta and Peshawar respectively.

Kugelman says the softer targets have always been vulnerable. “There is a glass half empty/glass half full issue here. On the one hand, you can argue that the terrorists are increasingly going after the soft targets because they are weaker and no longer have the capacity to attack the hard targets. But then again you can also argue that the terrorists can effectively operate with impunity by seemingly attacking these softer targets at will.”

Haider says since guarding all soft targets is impossible, this is where preemption comes in. “If intelligence and law-enforcement agencies weren’t working diligently, there would have been many more attacks than what we saw even with higher number of attacks in the years 2010 to 2012. Since then the number of attacks have actually come down. Of course, measures must be taken to make people aware of their responsibility to report any suspicious activity.”

Human rights activist and columnist for The Nation Gul Bukhari says physical warfare is no match for psychological indoctrination. “Normalizing the psychology of the infected, or the infected to be, will take decades. The state will need to become clear on its own ‘ideology’ or lack thereof, of the curricula to be taught in state schools, of the personas to support in the media, of whether to decelerate and dismantle madrassas, etc.”

War of Narratives

On January 20, the BKU students were set to host a poetry recital in the afternoon to commemorate the anniversary of Pashtun nationalist leader Bacha Khan’s death. Marwat believes that the fact that the attack was launched on that day holds a lot of symbolic value.

“Bacha Khan was a proponent of peace,” he says. “The attack highlights the war of narrative that we’re traversing. It is as important to win this war as it is to win militarily.”

Haider says that the attack could also develop a gulf between the Pashtun and the Punjabis. “That’s precisely what we saw after the attack,” he says. Marwat meanwhile urges national unity in confronting a common enemy.

Gohar believes the state is still suffering because of former military dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s destructive policies. “That’s when AK-47s proliferated in the country and our school curricula started teaching hatred and violence. There were guns in the school books then but now the PTI/JI government is making schools arms and ammunition dumps.

“The environment created in schools is not conducive for learning. If after allocating huge defense and security budgets, our teachers are held responsible for security and our children have to study in an environment of fear, we need to seriously review our defense and security policies and allocations.”

“Instead of holding those responsible for security failure accountable, the blame is transferred externally and attention from the criminal negligence and failure is diverted by producing songs. One doesn’t expect security agencies to be producing songs but doing its professional job of ensuring security.”

Bukhari claims it will take decades to turn around the mindset that attacks completely innocent people, including children. “For years I have exhorted the state to focus on the narrative; to squash the nurseries that nurture the terrorists and their narratives, to shut down the takfiri madrasas that engender the hatred that leads to the killings. The state did not pay heed to any of us.”

Kugelman believes it’s hard to make a compelling narrative when children continue to get killed in schools. “For these narratives to be seen as credible, Pakistan will need to take major steps to curb attacks on schools, and more importantly to better secure them. Unfortunately this won’t be easy.”

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based journalist covering human rights, security, militancy, diplomacy, energy and finance. He is web editor for The Nation and reporter/columnist for The Friday Times.