Using terrorism strategically

In the absence of effective political institutional input to set up mechanisms able to handle terrorism, Pakistan has given the military a free hand to maintain the status quo.

Syed Irfan Ashraf
26 December 2014
Peshawar protest against Taliban attack on Army Public School, December 17, 2014

Peshawar protest against Taliban attack on Army Public School, December 17, 2014. pplimages/Demotix. All rights reserved.Shock and awe have struck Pakistan in the wake of the coldblooded massacre of over 150 school children in the military-run school in Peshawar, the largest northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). In traveling from the remote part of Chitral district up to Peshawar and Islamabad, I found public sentiments charged and uncharacteristically unified. Nonstop coverage by the private TV channels has effectively intensified the national trauma. Politicians have responded to the public pulse by holding an all-parties meeting in Peshawar in response to this incident. The military leadership seems more resolute in eliminating the Taliban. This is also because the militants’ attacks, if continued, would threaten the military’s vast investment in educational and business enterprises across the country. In the presence of such widespread consensus, should we expect the beginning of the end of Taliban’s terrorism in Pakistan?

In the past militants usually try to mitigate the effects of attacks in which they indiscriminately massacre civilians. In 2009 in Peshawar the death of 137 people in the Mena Bazar bombing is one such example, for which no group claimed responsibility. In this 2009 instance, the Tehrik-i-Talban (TTP), the Pakistani-based Taliban, and al-Qaida denied involvement.

In the case of the recent military-run school the situation however is different. Carried out on December 16, the attack was quickly followed by a decree and a few statements in which the TTP not only acknowledged what they had done, but also threatened to conduct more attacks to avenge deaths carried out in drone strikes and military operations. This aggression reflects desperation in TTP ranks,  a desperation which needs to be understood from a wider perspective.

Ever since becoming the TTP chief, Molvi Fazlullah has been confronted with intra-organizational challenges. With al-Qaida regional influence on the wane, some militant groups, such as the TTP splinter group Jammatul Ahrar, are affiliating with ISIS as an option offering them a more global jihadist identity. Fazlullah needed to assert his authority within militant ranks. By organizing the massacre of innocent children, he demonstrated TTP organizational capability. However, media reports of recent criticism from al-Qaida, Jammatul Ahrar and the Afghan Taliban could potentially isolate the TTP leadership. Any advantage that could be gained from divisions in the TTP ranks depends upon the commitment of Pakistan’s military leadership, which solely decides the fate of counterinsurgency operations in Pakistan. Unlike in the past, however, the military itself is confronted by two different institutional challenges.

First, the Taliban have used the element of barbarity as part of a larger effort to destabilize the Pakistani military by attacking their families directly. Children and teachers with military backgrounds were singled out, either to be burnt alive or decapitated. By hitting at the military’s soft underbelly through a dastardly attack inside the garrisoned city of Peshawar, Taliban militants confronted the military leadership with a situation in which retaliation is inevitable as the only option. 

The symbolic impact of this barbaric act carried out on the families of the less guarded junior officials, and the urgent need for the military leadership to address this concern, is evident from the unscheduled visit within hours of the attack by the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff to Afghanistan. Since the TTP leadership operates from their sanctuaries located in the difficult bordering terrains in Afghanistan, the Pakistani military apparently convinced the Afghan officials to initiate the first ever-military operations against terrorists operating from Afghan soil. As I write these lines, the media are quoting Afghan officials who claim that Afghanistan has killed 150 militants belonging to Molvi Fazlullah’s group (military claims in Pakistan and Afghanistan are usually in round figures and cannot be independently verified).

The second vital institutional challenge is the evolving nature of the civilian-military relationship in Pakistan, which needs to be analyzed in the scenario emerging from this massacre. Shortly after the attack began, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reached Peshawar followed by the leader of the opposition party Pakistan Tehrik Insaf (PTI), Imran Khan. In solidarity with the military and in line with public sentiments after the attack, the PTI ended a series of anti-government, countrywide protests, which had paralyzed the Nawaz government for the last few months.

One outcome of the recent all-party meeting organized in the aftermath of the attack was a political understanding which brought an effective end to a six year-old moratorium on the death penalty, which had resulted in a backlog of about 8,000 cases on a death row. The end of the moratorium has resulted in the march to the gallows of militants who were convicted of involvement in the 2009 attack on General Pervez Musharraf. The government also allowed the establishment of military courts to punish militants without any mechanism for civilian oversight. In view of the above it is not difficult to understand that unity among the otherwise divided political ranks depends upon existential threats to the interests of the Pakistan military. Threats to civilians do not carry the same impact. In other words, decision-making with respect to terrorism is subservient to institutional interests regarding national priorities.

The state apparatus seems to have tolerated the Taliban for as long as militancy is focused on targeting civilians either in marginalized FATA or the peripheral areas of the KPK? If this is the case, what kind of value is placed on civilian lives or civilian blood spilt in Pakistan? The present media hype following the school massacre may suppress such questions to help unite the country against the ‘bad’ Taliban. But the fault lines are there to stay, if not taken into consideration.

An explanation is required, therefore, to understand the political inaction in defending civilian interests, as thousands have been killed in the last decade. Why the end of the moratorium on the death sentence now? Why was the state apparatus reluctant to decide the fate of over 5,000 militants whose stories of radicalizing jail mates have been emerging at regular intervals in the media? Hundreds of terrorists have already been rescued by their accomplices as Taliban militants carried out two major jailbreak incidents in KPK (releasing over 500 inmates, many of them hardened terrorists), which helps to continue the cycle of militancy in the tribal belt inhabited by ethnic Pashtuns. Similarly, militants in different parts of the KPK and the tribal belt have destroyed over one thousands schools—a symbolic death for thousands of students, leaving them with no other option than either to join the militants or to live with the harshness of displacement—but this issue too has triggered no official response. Almost 80 percent of such schools are still awaiting reconstruction in the absence of which some students study while sitting among the remains of the destroyed buildings while others have become victims of internally displaced camp life.

So what is so special about the massacre in the military-run school? Of course it goes without saying that it is equally tragic. But barbaric incidents of a similar nature have been happening for some time in which children have been killed, girls have been mercilessly shot, public gatherings were bombed and so on. Why is this specific incident given the status of a “national trauma” recognized by all state institutions, media, and people in general? Were they waiting only for this to happen to take action?

As the military in Pakistan calls the shots, politicians of that country serve only as rubber stamps. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in his televised address to the nation said that the terrorists’ days are numbered and formally announced setting up military courts for the duration of two years. In the absence of effective political institutional input to set up mechanisms able to handle terrorism, they have given the military a free hand essentially to maintain the status quo— through a distinction that is quite false between the good Taliban and bad Taliban.

This will not only allow the security forces, already tainted with accusations of killing and dumping practices, to target Baloch and other neglected and marginalized groups, but it will also strip such groups of their constitutional rights under the military courts. 

Furthermore, the new legal and political arrangements to handle militants with an iron hand are going to effectively undermine the incumbent political authority, giving civilians the impression that only the military is capable of taking action. As long as militants’ sanctuaries in the biggest Punjab province stay intact, teaching the ‘bad’ Taliban (represented by renegade organizations such as TTP) a lesson by carrying out military operations in the already ravaged Pashtun belt (KPK and FATA) is an exercise in futility.

Though effective in preventing militants from damaging military interests, this approach is not going to end terrorism as long as the military has strategic and political designs independent of the control of civilian interests and political determination. On the contrary, it will only contain terrorists to the extent of keeping them away from damaging the military’s institutional interests, a situation already in place for the last decade under military supervision.

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