Commentary

Is Pakistan School Attack a Turning Point?

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

The Pakistani Taliban attack of a school in Peshawar which claimed the lives of at least 141 students and teachers has been roundly condemned around the world. The carnage is heinous enough that even the Afghan Taliban have denounced it. Judging from the reaction of the media in Pakistan and other parts of the world, the school siege is being defined as a turning point in Islamabad’s attitude toward the Taliban. However, there are some that caution that, despite the pain and the anger caused by the killing of so many innocent people, the Pakistani political establishment should resist the urge of making knee-jerk policy decisions.

Reflecting on the events of this week, the Gulf Today editorial considered the tragedy a “decisive point” in Pakistan’s fight against terrorism: “Nawaz Sharif has also vowed that the country would not be cowed down by the violence and that the military would continue with the operation launched in the North Waziristan tribal area. It would be foolhardy to think that heinous attacks by terrorists such as the one in Peshawar may weaken the military’s resolve. On the contrary, it would only strengthen its determination to eliminate extremism. There is little doubt that the international community would stand solidly behind Pakistan in such an endeavor.”

Others, like the editorial staff of the Pakistani daily The Nation, believe this is the time for the government and other elements of the Pakistani society to come out clean and admit their failures: “Some say that at a time like this, it is not wise and appropriate to blame the government or state institutions. Such a tragedy calls for unity, and criticism doesn’t help to achieve that purpose. But no consensus can be built, no wrong can be corrected, no problem can be solved by deciding against speaking the truth. And the truth is this: Not just terrorists, but everyone, from the wider population to the civil and military leadership is responsible for the barbarity our children were subjected to....While the military conducts operations against bad Taliban in FATA, it continues to protect sectarian elements in Quetta, the Afghan Taliban and other ‘jihadi’ organizations such as Jamat-ud-Dawa. The country is reaping what it has sown over decades.”

But such critical voices have generally been muted, and it seems that the tragedy has brought together, as the Saudi Gazette editorial points out, the usually-fractured Pakistani political leadership : “Even the Pakistani political community, whose bickering and visceral rivalries have done so much to destabilize the country and thus foster terrorism, has come together to condemn this barbarism....As the army steps up its strikes in northern Waziristan and starts to move in ground troops, rumored divisions over tactics among Taliban leaders may increase. The white hot fury that now fills all decent Pakistanis demands that the military redouble its assault. But that anguished anger demands something else. It also demands absolute unity from the Pakistan political establishment, the sinking of differences and the ending of hate-filled politicking, at least until the vicious evil that is Taliban terrorism is utterly destroyed.”

But as the Peninsula’s editorial reminds us, this is not Pakistan’s fight alone, and others should join in to contain the threat of terrorism: “Pakistan military must unleash its entire arsenal against the Taliban and the government should not rest until this enemy is eradicated from its soil for the benefit of Pakistan and the entire world. It’s not easy, and can have dangerous consequences as we have seen, but there is no alternative. Taliban can’t be talked to....And the situation is most favorable for a ferocious operation. The whole of Pakistan will stand with the government and the military. This is a battle which Pakistan must not be asked to fight alone. The world needs to offer every support possible – military, financial and logistical. The world has been very vocal in its condemnation of this savage extremism. But those words need to be translated into action.”

And there are signs that, following the school tragedy, a sense of common purpose is being forged beyond Pakistan, something which the National’s editorial staff urges the Pakistani political leadership to take note of: “[the] school massacre proves that Pakistan must move beyond fighting talk against the Taliban...The Pakistani government and army must move swiftly and in concert to exploit the national revulsion at the school killings by recognizing the enemy within. That is the only way to fight back. There may have never been a better time to do so, given that a shadowy genuinely united front against terrorism appears to be emerging, comprising the new Afghan government, Mr. Sharif’s administration, the Pakistani army and the US. Peshawar shows that this is no time for half measures.”

Whether it is in concert with other countries or alone, what matters for some observers in the region is that action against the Taliban and its supporters within Pakistan is needed. Otherwise, there is a concern, expressed by some, including a Khaleej Times editorial, that the country might be further destabilized: “The security forces that have been in the vanguard in fighting terrorism should meet head on the challenge of exterminating these disgruntled elements, without look back at the political aftermath, as saving the nation is of utmost importance....it is a moment to act against the sympathizers of Taliban, who shamelessly preach a theory of their own. Similarly, there is no dearth of elements that openly propagate a hate campaign on the premise of sectarianism, and unfortunately enjoy political and communal support. These elements fail Pakistan on the international front, and make it bleed at home. If national cohesion has to be upheld, then militancy has to be crushed at any cost.”

Writing for the Pakistani Daily Times, Mohammad Taqi argues that the real test of the Pakistani government’s resolve will be the way it handles its relationship with the Afghan Taliban, with which it has a complicated relationship: “What the current civil and military leaders have to realize is that the distinction between the good and bad jihadists has to go before any anti-terrorism effort can be termed meaningful. The Taliban cannot be good for Kabul and bad for Karachi. Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) cannot be a poison just for Delhi and a potion in Lahore....The litmus test of the Pakistani leadership’s sincerity and success would actually be whether it cuts the Afghan Taliban and its Haqqani network affiliates loose, hands over Mullah Omar to Afghanistan and puts an end to LeT leaders professing jihadism from national monuments. Unless action is taken against all these hideous shades of terrorism, neither the massacre in my city will be the last one nor would it be the last city to go through such horror.”

Finally, another Pakistani daily, The Nation, pleads in its editorial that the agony and pain caused by the horrific events of this week, should not lead to overreacting on the part of the Pakistani political establishment and thus allow the terrorist attack to dictate government policy more broadly: “The Prime Minister on Wednesday approved the removal of the moratorium on the death penalty in terrorism cases, in the wake of the horror in Peshawar. The announcement has been met with roars of approval by a grieving nation. The sentiment is understandable....However, mustering every ounce of level headedness left within this polity, it is important not to let surging emotion sweep logic with it. The moratorium on the death penalty was an important milestone, reached after decades of effort by civil society and human rights groups and it has been undone by a knee-jerk reaction aimed at appeasing a wounded nation, without any debate.”


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