By THE EDITORIAL BOARD DEC. 16, 2014
Peshawar, Pakistan. Credit Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
With the slaughter of at least 145 schoolchildren and teachers at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Tuesday, the Taliban took its grisly war against the state to a more horrific place.
The massacre by the Pakistani Taliban, which has carried out increasingly deadly attacks in recent years, should prompt the country’s military and political leaders to reconsider their conflicted approach to the insurgency that is threatening the state’s survival.
The attack, by nine gunmen disguised as paramilitary soldiers, departed from the recent pattern. In its violent effort to topple the government and establish an Islamic state, the Taliban has hit military installations, including army headquarters in Rawalpindi, a naval base in Karachi, an air base in Kamra, an airport in Peshawar, and the international airport in Karachi.
Like those earlier incidents, this was another security breach for the army and intelligence services. The terrorists knew that attacking the children, many of them from military families, would create greater fear and anguish. “We selected the army’s school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females,” said Taliban spokesman Muhammad Khurasani, according to Reuters. “We want them to feel the pain.”
During Tuesday’s eight-hour siege, the gunmen, who were eventually killed in the fight with security forces, opened fire on the students. Many of the children reportedly were killed by a gunshot to the head. A teacher was burned alive in front of the students. Afterward, the Taliban did not hesitate to take responsibility for the murders, saying it was in retaliation for the military’s offensive against militants in the North Waziristan tribal district in June, which the army claims resulted in the deaths of 1,800 militants.
The attack should help the army see the terrorist threat more clearly and strengthen its efforts to confront it or at least end support for militants in the region. But there is reason for skepticism.
Wedded to an outmoded vision of India as the mortal enemy, the army has long played a double-game, taking American aid while supporting and exploiting various Taliban groups as a hedge against India and Afghanistan, and ignoring the peril that the militants have come to pose to Pakistan itself. The extent of cooperation among those groups in the tribal areas has made that game even riskier; the Pakistani military has long provided support for the Afghan-focused Taliban, even while trying to fight the Pakistani Taliban in recent years. Intelligence experts say the army is still collaborating with the Afghan Taliban in fighting the government in Kabul.
Imran Khan, the dangerously disruptive politician whose party controls the province where the massacre took place, was wise to postpone countrywide protests that are part of his push to bring down Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But he should also drop his demand that the government negotiate with the militants rather than fight them. That has been tried and failed.
To defeat the extremists, Pakistan will need more than a military strategy. It will need responsible governance and an acknowledgment by top leaders that they cannot contain attacks from one terrorist group while enabling another one.