Toronto Star

Pakistan’s new reckoning with Taliban

Government’s harsh reaction to school massacre masks divide in public opinion


WASHINGTON— In the aftermath of last week’s brutal terrorist attack by the Taliban on a school in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, which left 148 dead, the country’s authoritie­s responded with a firm, if heavy, hand.

Pakistani officials dubbed the massacre a “mini-9/11,” a tragic moment of reckoning in the country’s history. “Terrorism and sectariani­sm are a cancer for this country and now the time has come to root it out,” said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Monday.

The Pakistani military carried out a “blitzkrieg” of airstrikes on suspected Taliban positions, allegedly killing dozens of militants. Authoritie­s also lifted a moratorium on capital punishment in the country, and set about executing those with death sentences for terrorism charges. Six people have been hanged, while some 50 more face execution, according to reports. As many as 500 inmates on death row in Pakistan could be executed in the coming weeks.

Many are not impressed by this grim display of resolve. It is the response, observes Ahsan Butt, an assistant professor of internatio­nal affairs at George Mason University, of a “punch-drunk state lashing out” with “the strategic equivalent of a non sequitur.”

Internatio­nal rights groups fear that some of the Pakistani inmates slated now for execution are innocent of crimes. In their rush to avenge Peshawar’s slain children, Pakistan’s leaders may be inflicting more injustice.

It’s clear that many in Pakistan want the Taliban to pay for their crime. And it’s also clear that there’s a recognitio­n among some Pakistanis that many of their country’s wounds are self-inflicted. The Taliban, after all, were incubated for years by the Pakistani state as “strategic depth” in the larger geopolitic­al battles taking place in neighbouri­ng Afghanista­n.

In the past half a decade, a segment of the militants turned and targeted the machinery of the Pakistani state, imposing sharia law in remote areas where they held sway while killing hundreds of innocents.

Some Pakistanis came to tolerate a terrible dichotomy: the Pakistani Taliban were “bad,” while others, whose forays across Pakistan’s borders served the interests of elements of the military, were “good.” The Afghan Taliban’s leadership has long found sanctuary in Pakistan — so, too, other extremists, most notably Osama bin Laden.

Sharif has insisted no such distinctio­n will be allowed, and that all the militant groups in the country “would be dealt equally with an iron hand.” The Pakistani military has spent the better part of the year on a ruthless military campaign against Taliban factions in the country’s rugged, remote tribal border areas. Thousands of militants have been killed and hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced.

But the problem of militancy in Pakistan goes deeper than airstrikes and counter-insurgency. It’s far too early to judge what lessons have been learned after the horrors of Peshawar, and who has learned those lessons. Public opinion over Islamist militancy remains mixed, with many more wary of supposed external enemies in the West and India.

Conspiracy mongers, Islamist extremists and hard-line nationalis­ts pinned the Peshawar attacks on India, on Afghanista­n, on Arab outsiders — anyone but Pakistanis. The attitudes and ideologies that have condoned militancy in the past won’t go away overnight.

Just days after the massacre, a Pakistani court granted bail to a militant believed to be one of the mastermind­s of the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai. It was launched by Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamist militant group whose charity arm held a mournful mass prayer for the slain children of Peshawar and whose prominent leader Hafiz Saeed held a public gathering in the city of Lahore, blaming India for the slaughter — an absurd accusation were it not for the fact that far too many in Pakistan still choose to believe it.

Despite the consensus about dealing with the Taliban in their frontier hideouts, there’s little will among Pakistan’s political and military establishm­ent to confront head-on groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba that operate in the country’s heartland.

Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., writes at length on the roots of this schizophre­nia, which he argues stems from the country’s origins as a haven for South Asia’s Muslims:

“Pakistan’s constructe­d identity emphasizes religion and ideology at the expense of ethnic, linguistic and sectarian diversity of a complex society. As a result, the country’s approach to national security has been driven by ideologica­l rather than pragmatic considerat­ions . . .

The ideology of Pakistan, and the falsified historic narrative taught in schools to justify it, produces sympathy in society for Sharia rule, for an Islamic caliphate and an Islamic state. This works in favour of more than 33 militant groups that operate out of Pakistan. Pakistan’s strategic planners may see no difficulty in eliminatin­g global terrorists and fighting local jihadis while supporting regional ones. But the general public is conflicted in its attitude toward jihadi groups. Unfortunat­ely for those who want to stop the (Pakistani Taliban), their rhetoric about Sharia and against western values resonates with supporters of other, ostensibly ‘more palatable’, jihadi groups even if their methods are abhorred by Pakistanis.”

The fragility of Pakistani nationalis­m — to this day, more South Asian Muslims are non-Pakistani than Pakistani — has allowed it to become an umbrella for unsavory extremism. That requires a very difficult reckoning, one for which some fear the country is still not ready.

“A national conversati­on like that remains improbable, however, in the climate of fear establishe­d by religious extremists and their many allies among mainstream political parties and the media,” says professor Butt.

Some of the harshest critics of Pakistan’s security state doubt even the Peshawar massacre will shake the conviction­s of elements within the Pakistani establishm­ent that remain tacitly or directly in collusion with extremist forces. This includes a wing of the ISI, Pakistan’s notorious military intelligen­ce agency.

“Unfortunat­ely, many tens of thousands of Pakistanis will die long before the army gives up its jihad habit,” writes Georgetown University’s Christine Fair.

“And there is absolutely no amount of American, British or other aid or forms of inducement­s that can change this basic truth.”

 ?? A MAJEED/AFP/GETTY IMAGES ?? Female Pakistani police commandos wield their weapons during a training exercise in the Nowshera district.
A MAJEED/AFP/GETTY IMAGES Female Pakistani police commandos wield their weapons during a training exercise in the Nowshera district.

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