School Attacks Expose Widening Cracks in Pakistani Counterterrorism

Pakistan is again recovering from a militant attack on an educational institution in its northwest region. A January 20th Taliban assault on Bacha Khan University left 21 people dead and another 21 critically injured. The violence was reminiscent of a school massacre in Peshawar in December 2014, which killed 132 students. It seems the country’s authorities have learned little about the failings of their counterterrorism strategy in the intervening period.

After the Bacha Khan attacks, Taliban commander Khalifa Omar Mansoor threatened to “kill the future generation of Pakistan in their nurseries,” in a video message. “We will attack every educational institution that produces lawyers and judges who then run a parallel legal system,” he said, before warning of similar attacks against the institutions that produce soldiers to fight against the Taliban.

This threat of further violence was typical of militant tactics in the country. Just as predictable was the Pakistani government and armed forces’ response to the January 20th events, which consisted of calling high-level meetings to brief top military and political leaders and declaring a renewed war on terrorism. Instead of seriously reflecting on their inability to protect citizens, the focus is on blaming external influences and continuing to celebrate the resilience of Pakistan against such threats.

Many members of the media typically take this narrative further, conspiratorially blaming India and other foreign countries—mainly the United States and Israel—for instigating the violence. Meanwhile, the terrorists are quickly identified as foreigners such as Afghans, Uzbeks, Tajiks, or Chechens, without independent sources being allowed to verify these facts.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other members of his government continue to insist that they are winning the war against terrorism, particularly since the implementation of the Zarb-e- Azb (sharp strike) operation in 2014, which pursues military action against extremists in tribal areas. They produce data to support these claims, including a recent study that found a 70% decline in the number of attacks and deaths in 2015. Authorities also claim the Taliban are attacking soft targets because they can no longer strike airports and military bases and cantonments. In criticizing this establishment response, one commentator recently summarized the sentiments of many: “we are supposed to take solace in the slaughter of our children because our cantonments and airports are safe.”

In truth, Pakistan’s counterterrorism strategy has long had to contend with several major contradictions that severely limit its effectiveness. Principally, authorities are preoccupied with fighting an internal enemy of supposedly “bad Taliban”, who were responsible for the recent attacks, while harboring “good Taliban” to serve Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan. This support is seen as providing a bargaining chip for Pakistan’s position in its neighboring country, but makes little sense in terms of seeking its own long-term peace and security.

Both iterations of the Taliban are partly a product of the policies of Pakistani authorities themselves. The group now conducting attacks against schools within its borders coalesced after Islamabad intervened in tribal areas, in an attempt to stem the flow of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan after the US-led invasion of 2001. Meanwhile, Pakistan has always felt threatened by the prospect of losing influence in Afghanistan to India, and its policy of developing militants in that country stretch much further back. A recent paper by Sumit Ganguly and Christine Fair argued the presence of Pakistani proxies in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979: “the so-called mujahideen groups were already formed and had been operational inside Afghanistan with their bases in Pakistan”. The US and Saudi Arabia in turn signed on to the strategy of empowering them.

While continuously failing to address these issues, Pakistan developed a new counterterrorism strategy in the wake of the December 2014 Peshawar attacks. All political parties agreed to implement a new National Action Plan on terrorism, which included a mix of hard and soft policies such as immediately executing terrorists sentenced to death; eliminating funding sources of terrorist organizations; preventing banned organizations from operating under new names; protecting religious minorities; registering and regulating madrassas; and dismantling terrorist communications.

In theory, the plan shifted the conventional way of doing business in the country, but in practice not much has changed. It did not signal a change to the contradictions in Pakistan’s counterterrorism strategy, and did not adequately seek to counter the threat of the Taliban, or members of al-Qaeda and, more recently, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

As many South Asian analysts have correctly pointed out, the major flaw in Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts has long been that it they are defined and controlled by the military and not the elected government. The National Action Plan merely continues this flawed policy and even bolsters the military’s position by authorizing all terrorism cases to be handled by military tribunal courts. There continues to be no independent agency to assess and make the armed forces accountable for their actions and decisions.

The government, moreover, has not  been willing to comply with a number of recommendations contained within the plan. This includes failing to arrest those people—religious clerics in particular—and eliminate those organizations that spread hate, violence, and sectarianism. For example, Maulana Abdul Aziz, the cleric at the infamous Lal Masjid mosque in the heart of Islamabad, has openly supported groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban, yet has not been curtailed from spreading his radical ideology. Meanwhile, known terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamaat–ud-Dawa, and Jaish-e-Mohammad continue to function. Indeed, they have still maintained partnerships with the military because they are considered strategic assets against India in Kashmir.

Pakistan today faces a fundamental choice on whether or not it will continue to pursue its illogical counterterrorism policies, which have largely backfired and now threaten the fabric of the state, as is evident in attacks on the country’s schools, universities, and military bases. The alternative is to attack the causes of Pakistan’s violence directly—both inside and outside its borders—and take power out of the hands of the military, or at least make it accountable to an elected body.

Farah Jan is a PhD candidate at Rutgers University. Her Twitter handle is: @fjan1