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Reviewing Pakistan’s Anti-Terror Fight, 3 Years After the Peshawar School Attack

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The Pulse

Reviewing Pakistan’s Anti-Terror Fight, 3 Years After the Peshawar School Attack

Why is the world reluctant to recognize Pakistan’s sacrifices in the fight against terrorism? The APS attack and its aftermath serve as a test case.

Reviewing Pakistan’s Anti-Terror Fight, 3 Years After the Peshawar School Attack

Pakistani children hold candles and pray for victims during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the attack on a military school in Peshawar, Pakistan (Dec. 16, 2016).

Credit: AP Photo/Muhammad Sajjad

Another year has gone by, the third since the massacre at a military-run school in Pakistan’s northwestern town of Peshawar. Unlike the previous two anniversaries, this year the grief and agony of the victims’ families was overshadowed by political gimmicks, with the country’s top court at center stage.

For the families, it is another year without the realization of the promises and tall claims made by the civilian and military leadership. For Pakistan, the dream of a peaceful, tolerant and pluralistic society is still shrouded in the hateful slogans of sectarianism, political and ethnic confrontations, and deepening suspicions and divisions among the key state organs.

What else could better define Pakistan’s sacrifices in the ongoing fight against terrorism than the slaughter of innocent children at the Army Public School (APS) on December 16, 2014? Moreover, the horrific attack came at a time when Pakistan was (and still is) struggling to assure its American allies of its sincerity in this 17-year-long anti-terror war and to convince Washington to take note of Islamabad’s genuine concerns.

Looking back at the APS bloodbath, and the attacks on universities, mosques, churches, Imam Bargahs, markets, police stations and offices and personnel of other security agencies of the past three years, one may honestly question when Pakistan will no longer need to “do more” to fight terrorism.

This is a genuine question, especially at a time when Pakistan’s relationship with the United States is fraught with mutual misunderstandings. The two sides are struggling to synchronize their conflicting interests in Afghanistan and mitigate the doubts and misunderstandings in this often fraught but long-standing relationship.

Here we need a pause to find out why the world is still reluctant to recognize Pakistan’s sacrifices in the fight against terrorism. The APS attack and its aftermath can serve as a test case.

Soon after the tragedy, the political and military leadership put their heads together and unanimously approved a comprehensive strategy, known as the National Action Plan (NAP), to tackle the scourge of terrorism, extremism, and radicalism head on. This also included an across-the-board action against all militant groups and those spreading and supporting violent extremism, irrespective of their being in favor of or against the state.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched six months ahead of the APS attack, inflicted a crushing blow on the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its affiliates in its self-proclaimed emirates of North Waziristan, followed by their eviction from Tirah and Rajgal valleys in the Khyber tribal district bordering Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province.

All this came with much fanfare and a sense of relief for most Pakistanis, who had been suffering the brunt of terrorist bomb blasts and suicide attacks on a near daily basis since 2007. But the expulsion of the TTP from Pakistan’s tribal areas was only one part of the hard mission. The bigger challenge was how to counter the spread of radicalism that nurtures violent extremism.

A glance at the last three years reveals that the military courts awarded death sentences to individuals mostly unknown to the majority of Pakistanis. The APS victims’ parents want punishments for the ones who blatantly claimed the massacre and continued their attacks on educational institutions to terrorize the people.

Although terrorist attacks have declined considerably over the past few years, there is no visible plan, nor apparently the will, to counter the elements spreading radicalism and extremism. Religious extremists are in control of the mainstream narrative, with one fresh example being the 21-day sit-in at the Faizabad Interchange in Islamabad last month.

The state stood helpless before 1,500 to 2,000 religious zealots and their leaders, who spit the venom of hatred against any one whose religious views contrast their narrow concepts of Islam and Muslimhood. The protest ended only when the federal government agreed to the resignation of its law minister. This was in clear violation of the National Action Plan agreed upon by Pakistan’s religious, political, and military leadership.

Meanwhile, the Tehrik-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYA) and Milli Muslim League (MML) of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed are coming forward to contest the national and provincial assemblies elections without denouncing violence. Another cleric, Maulana Samiul Haq, who is openly eulogizing the Taliban and their jihad in Afghanistan has recently become the darling of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI), the party seen as the leading contender in the upcoming parliamentary election.

Last year, the PTI government in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province released 300 million rupees (roughly $3 million) for the Darul Uloom Haqqania, the seminary led by Maulana Samiul Haq, in the name of reforms. A year on, no signs of the promised reforms are visible. Was that huge sum meant to appease the person proudly calling himself “father of the Taliban?”

Samiul Haq is a staunch supporter of the Afghan Taliban who never denounces their attacks in Afghanistan, whether against civilians or the Afghan and international security forces. His continued prominence is one of the major reasons that Pakistan’s sacrifices go unnoticed or ignored by the United States and its NATO allies when it comes to the global war against terrorism.

Like any sovereign country, Pakistan reserves the right to defend its national interests and there are instances in history — from South Asia to the Middle East and Africa and even Europe — where states supported unsavory groups or leaders to safeguard their perceived or genuine national interests in a particular region.

While it is easier to befriend the enemy of your enemy, it is really an uphill task to befriend the enemy of your friend or ally and keep the friendship intact the same time.

Taliban, the Haqqanis, or other jihadi groups may not be considered an existential threat to Pakistan or its national interests in the short run, but the waves generated by their presence and activities are certainly promoting extremism and encourage groups with extremist tendencies to impose their agendas with the use of force.

Yesterday, it was the megaphone from the minarets of mosques and madrassas (religious seminaries), today it is the sit-ins and siege politics of the hardliners, who, if left unchallenged, will speak through the barrel of gun tomorrow to impose their harsh religious views.

It was not long ago that Mullah Fazlullah, then a simple cleric, and his father-in-law Sufi Muhammad, led the ragtag Lashkar (army of volunteers) of Pashtuns to fight the armed-to-the-teeth international forces in Afghanistan in late 2001. The state did not move as Fazlullah and Sufi were gathering people and leading them across the border to Afghanistan, because this did not pose any threat to Pakistan’s peace and security. Upon his return, Fazlullah started his illegal FM radio broadcasts and the state continued its meaningful silence.

The seriousness of the situation dawned upon the Pakistani leaders only when Fazlullah declared war against Pakistan in the aftermath of the operation against Jamia Hafsa and Lal Masjid (the Red Mosque) in July 2007. After two years of fighting and numerous military operations, the Pakistani security forces managed to defeat the Fazlullah-led Taliban in Swat/Malakand. Since then, Mullah Fazlullah has been hiding across the border in Afghanistan and his TTP fighters launch attacks on Pakistani civilians and security forces from time to time. The December 16, 2014 attack on the military-run school in Peshawar was one of these.

When I approached Falak Naz Bibi, mother of two victims, Noorullah Durrani and Saifullah Durrani, for an interview on the first anniversary of the APS attack in 2015, she was all tears and sighs. On the third anniversary in 2017, Falak Naz Bibi is worried about the future of other children and wants the state to find a permanent solution to Taliban terror.

“The government could not save my sons. But, for God’s sake, you must ensure safety for the rest. Leadership does not mean slogans and chairing meetings. Leadership means lead from the front… the leader is one to risk his life to save others,” said Bibi, the wife of a retired army soldier, as tears rolled down her cheeks.

Aurang Zeb Khan, father of the 16-year-old Hassan Zeb, another victim of the APS terrorist attack, has decorated a room in his house with the photos, books, trophies, drawings, and clothes and shoes of his son. Each night, Aurang Zeb goes to sleep in the same room, with the hope that his teenage son will visit him in his dream. “But he never comes… I don’t know why,” Khan told one of my journalist colleagues in a recent interview.

Like the APS victims’ parents, the majority of Pakistanis want their country’s political and military leadership to revisit and, if possible, change the policies of the past three decades to safeguard the future of their country and coming generations.

Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.