M Zafar Khan Safdar
My drive is depleted,
My smiles been deleted.
Between all the tears,
I feel angry and cheated.
Like a festering wound
From a splinter in deep,
Grief invades every moment,
Shattering my days
And my sleep…
Even when you know your child is in heaven, it still hurts like hell. Four
years are gone yet it seems like yesterday and the people have not forgotten
the nightmare that was unfolded on this day back in 2014. The December 16 attack on the Army Public
School (APS) in Peshawar was the worst terrorist act in Pakistan’s history that
claimed the lives of more than 149 people, including 134 children, and a nearly
equal number injured. After a squad of many armed men launched a suicide attack
during class hours with indiscriminate firing on school children as they raided
classroom after classroom, eight hours elapsed before military forces regained
control of the school. After four years, the Supreme Court of Pakistan formed a
judicial commission this October to probe the APS carnage, report of the
commission has yet to be submitted.
Terrorism has claimed more than seventy thousands of innocent lives in
Pakistan over the last several years, but the APS children’s massacre is the
bloodiest in the nation’s recent history. It sparked unparalleled shock across
the country and abroad, as people disbelievingly grieved the loss of young
children attending an otherwise normal day in school. This national tragedy
failed to find words of grief and sorrow, the consolation was meaningless. I
happened to attend few funerals of relatives who died in APS. The winter gloom
of Peshawar was further exacerbated; city and surroundings were in utter grief
that was beyond narration. Everyone was crying in tons before everyone after
mentioning the tragedy, and this is continued till day.
Responsibility for the massacre was claimed by the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban
Pakistan (TTP), who declared to have undertaken it as revenge for the ongoing
military operation Zarb-e-Azb in tribal areas since June 2014. The formation of
the TTP dates back to the 2002 that absorbed many Al-Qaeda fighters who fled
from Afghanistan to the bordering tribal areas of Pakistan following the US
attack in Oct 2001. In the year 2007, TTP was formally created as an umbrella
organization, led by Baitullah Mehsud, incorporating 13 militant groups.
Mehsud’s successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, declared a war against the state of
Pakistan in October 2013, seeking to replace Pakistan’s ‘un-Islamic system’ by
an Islamic one. Hakimullah Mehsud was killed the following month in a US drone
strike. Major differences in the historical background, interests and goals of
the TTP and the Afghan Taliban mean there is no direct affiliation between the
two. The distance between the groups was highlighted when an Afghan Taliban
spokesman criticized the APS attack by calling it ‘un-Islamic’. The operation
Zarb-e-Azb, after much ado, was finally launched on June 15, 2014, after it
became clear to the government that the peace talks with the TTP were nowhere
close to fruition, and that, despite the talks, the TTP had been conducting
The Army was also getting edgy as more and more military installations had
been targeted by the TTP, in one particular strike, Lt Gen Sanaullah Niazi, a
three-star general involved in previous military operations against the TTP,
was assassinated by the group in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa near the Afghan border.
Another key event that triggered the military was the TTP’s beheading of 23
captured soldiers from the Frontier Corps in February 2014. The TTP further
provoked the military by using Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) members to
conduct an attack at the Jinnah International Terminal of Karachi Airport,
which resulted in the killing of 28 airport security personnel.
The government’s policy to root out terrorists has been two pronged and
polarized, the government has sought to either negotiate with the TTP in the
hope of salvaging peace through a deal, or when such peace deals have failed,
the army has launched military operations to exterminate the Taliban, as was
the case with the Swat operation in 2009 when the Malakand Accord broke down.
The Malakand Accord, which was struck between the Government of Pakistan
and the TTP in February 2009, and involved making concessions to the militants
including the imposition of a radical form of Shari’a in the Malakand Division,
has already exposed the dangers of brokering a peace deal with the Taliban.
Following the government’s decision to take the offensive, the military
launched airstrikes, and 30,000 troops marched into North Waziristan to take
part in the operation against the terrorists. Operation Zarb-e-Azb has
successfully been completed by February 2017 after achieving the desired
results, replaced with another operation named ‘Radd-ul-Fasaad’ to conduct
Counter-Terrorism operations by Rangers in Punjab, to keep continue the ongoing
operations across the country, focus on more effective border security
management, countrywide explosive control and de-weaponisation, and pursuance
of National Action Plan.
The dangers inherent in a military operation against the TTP have also
manifested themselves through the ugly horror of suicide attacks and blasts
that have plagued the country. Pakistan saw a 48% rise in deaths in terrorists
attacks in 2009 following the launch of the army offensive in Swat and
Waziristan provoking a backlash from the Taliban, with terror attacks having
claimed 72,000 lives in the past 14 years. With those numbers in place,
Pakistan’s watershed moment was not readily decipherable, but the macabre scene
that unfolded in December 2014 in Peshawar was being termed the strongest contender.
The brazenness of the APS massacre united all the political parties and
military leadership of the country to unanimously condemn the attack and make
National Action Plan (NAP) to eradicate terrorism.
The NAP contains 20 points to eradicate the mindset of terrorism to defeat
extremism and sectarianism. Unsurprisingly, there is little evidence of
progress on many NAP targets. Groups and individuals banned in Pakistan and
also blacklisted under UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1267, continue to operate
freely. Efforts to regulate the Madaris, curb hate speech and literature and
block terrorist financing have been haphazard at best. A reformed and
strengthened criminal justice system could have helped to achieve NAP’s
The government still has an opportunity, albeit fast shrinking, to reverse
course and meaningfully overhaul counter-terrorism strategy, but this
necessitates revoking major policy concessions to the military. The government
should take on that challenge in order to replace an overly militarized
response with a revamped, intelligence-guided counter-terrorism strategy, led
by civilian law enforcement agencies, particularly the police. Dismantling
terror networks, detaining and trying jihadi leaders and foot soldiers, disrupting
terror financing and ending radicalization through hate speech and literature
will require reallocating limited resources in order to strengthen the capacity
of the provincial police forces. While the three basic bodies of law, the Penal
Code, Criminal Procedure Code and Evidence Act, need to be modernized, it is
even more urgent to build police capacity to enforce them.
That capacity has been gravely eroded due to the inadequacy of resources,
training, internal accountability and autonomy. The current emphasis on revenge
and retribution and the emasculation of fundamental rights and rule of law are
undermining citizen confidence in the state to deliver justice, a flawed
approach that also fuels grievances that benefit the violent extremists the NAP
is aimed at combating.
Both operations Zarb-e-Azb and Radd-ul-Fasaad have almost completed four
and half years. These military operations are the first of its kinds against
the terrorists based in the North Waziristan and other parts of the country.
However, there have been previous operations elsewhere in FATA since Pakistan’s
first operation against al-Qaeda, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and other foreign
Islamist militant groups in the area in 2002. The current operation is intended
to target al-Qaeda and its associated movements, both foreign and domestic,
including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Chechen Islamic Jihad Union
and Emirate-e-Kaukav, as well as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and other
various factions of the TTP. Phenomenal successes have been achieved from these
operations, terrorists’ backbone broken, main infrastructure dismantled and
nexus with sleeper cells largely disrupted.
Despite all its successes, one additional risk arising from these
operations is that adjacent Afghan provinces could now become a ‘new North
Waziristan’ as Islamist militants pushed out by Zarb-e-Azb have taken refuge
there, underlining the problems caused by our failure to get the Afghan
government of President Ashraf Ghani on board before launching the operation.
This lack of Pak-Afghan cooperation, and the resulting militant safe havens
into Afghanistan, is likely to be one reason why no major terrorist leader such
as Fazlullah, Adnan Rashid, and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, has so far been killed or
captured during the operation. It is
true that the presence of right wingers and self-appointed warders of religion
who have emptied the Divine from divinity and stand antithetical to everything
that God stands for are still the biggest threat. The ruthlessness of these ‘brainless
saviors of Islam’ have led Pakistan into its nuclear winter and far from a
Pakistani spring being the antidote, an upheaval of great proportions may be
required to counter this growing threat to the country’s survival.