Asia-Pacific / Pakistan

The Peshawar Massacre & The War On Education

On December 14th of this past year, there was an attack made by the Pakistani Taliban on an English-medium, army-run public school in Peshawar. The school had roughly 1,100 students ranging in age from 8 to 18 and was on the outside, and in many ways functionally, just like any junior-high or high-school complex you would find in suburban America. Many kids who went there had parents in the army, but it was also the school of many non-military families – just a good local school, which although military in name, was not militant in the way someplace like West Point is, for example. The event, truly a massacre, left 132 schoolchildren and 13 teachers and faculty dead. It is being called the largest terrorist attack in Pakistani history and the newest offensive in the “war on education” by prominent media in the US and Pakistan.

The violence began at 10:00 a.m., Peshawar time, when a man strapped with a suicide-vest stormed into an auditorium-style classroom where an exam was being taken and self-detonated. Almost immediately, five other gunmen, also wearing suicide-devices, stormed into the school and began shooting teachers and students indiscriminately. According to survivors, shooting in a given classroom would begin mass-execution style, by which one or a few of the gunmen would spray bullets into the crowd of children, and would then proceed into close range shootings by gunmen pacing around the room, looking for survivors. It is believed that most of the student and faculty deaths took place within the first few minutes of the attack; after the nearly immediate response of security forces, the incident turned into a hostage situation which lasted nearly 8 hours involving 34 students, 20 teachers and the last two remaining gunmen. The gunmen were ultimately shot and killed by the police. None of the hostages were harmed.

The Pakistani Taliban took responsibility for the attack roughly two days later. Pictures of the gunmen taken shortly before the attack were posted online, and a public statement given by Pakistani Taliban spokesman Mohammad Khurasani included both a justification of the event, claiming that the Pakistani Military has long been killing innocent children and families of Taliban members, and a warning, promising further attacks on military institutions and advising civilians to distance themselves from them immediately. “We targeted the army’s school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females… We want them to feel the pain,” he said.

The Pakistani government responded swiftly to the event, lifting a moratorium on the death penalty for terrorism cases that had been instated in 2008. Obama stood strongly with the Pakistani Government saying, “We… reiterate the commitment of the United States to support the government of Pakistan in its efforts to combat terrorism and extremism and to promote peace and stability in the region.” This support is likely to come in the form of increased military aid, specifically drone strikes.

The attack comes at, and as, a defining moment for the Pakistani Taliban after years of internal tensions and differences in leadership. It is important to note that unlike other Taliban groups, the Pakistani Taliban is more of a disparate coalescence of forces, often defined by geographical barriers and each with its own leadership, which, although sharing some goals, also differ greatly in their ultimate motives regarding their relationship with the Pakistani Government. In May 2014, the Mehsud faction of the organization, historically considered the basis and most important of the various groups, defected from the TTP in protest of its more violent, extremist practices. “We consider kidnapping for ransom, extortion, damage to public facilities and bombings to be un-Islamic. [TTP] Mehsud group believes in stopping the oppressor from cruelty, and supporting the oppressed,” said Mehsud in a public statement after the split. In August 2014, TTP elements from four of the seven tribal areas defected after disagreeing with the leader of the TTP’s decision to combat the Pakistani Army during Operation Zarb-e-Azb. Along with other shifts, the TTP has also become progressively more internationally diverse in its agency; for example, all of the terrorists of the Peshawar were foreign nationals – one Chechen, three Arabs and two Afghans.

Within the Pakistani Taliban, an increasingly international make-up, radical nature and directed focus against the Pakistani government reflects what the Pakistani government has long claimed to be efforts of Indian and Afghani intelligence agencies to infiltrate and gain control of the Pakistani Taliban for the purpose of waging a proxy war against Pakistan. After the Peshawar shooting, the Pakistani Army’s official spokesperson, Major General Asim Bajwa, claimed, “India is funding Taliban in Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Baluchistan,” citing that, given the Pakistani Taliban’s disparate structure and banned status, it would be unable to exist with such power and resource without the backing of a country of India’s scale. The Pakistani government has also come out against the state of Afghanistan, particularly strongly after high-status TTP officials were seen being escorted by Afghani Intelligence, picked up by US officials and returned to Pakistani authorities. US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has also affirmatively cited the role of Indian and Afghani intelligence in aiding the Pakistani Taliban, saying that India has “for many years been using Afghanistan to fight a proxy war against Pakistan by sponsoring terror attacks inside it… India for some time has always used Afghanistan as a second front, and India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border.” On the other hand, the Pakistani government has been doing the same thing against Afghanistan. Ex-President and Army Chief of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, has since leaving office noted Pakistan’s history of supporting the Afghani Taliban. Notably, the Afghani Taliban came out against the attack in Peshawar, referring to the act as “un-islamic”.

So, in essence what exists now is a network of proxy wars – an Indian proxy offensive against Pakistan that has lasted since the Partition of 1947, facilitated by Afghanistan, which to some degree is inescapably caught in the middle and merely choosing the stronger side and to some degree is defending its interests by minimalizing Pakistan’s strength in the region, and a Pakistani proxy war against Afghanistan, supported by the US, which also has its own interests in the Middle East. The politics are such that an aggressive proxy war against India is impractical, both for Pakistan and the United States, although it is almost certainly being waged to some degree.

It’s tough to predict the future of the situation. The Afghani Taliban is fundamentally different than the Pakistani Taliban, and may not be as malleable by an outside agent as the Pakistani Taliban has been by India and Afghanistan. Additionally, Pakistan has less economic and political influence than India, likely limiting its capacity to influence terrorist groups in these other countries. However, caught in the middle as it is, Afghanistan does not seem to be in a much safer position. The future of the conflict will likely be seen most vividly, and most messily, in Afghanistan and Pakistan by means of indirect, veiled conflict.