A year ago, the morning of 7 January 2014 started as an average routine day for the children of Ibrahimzai village in Hangu, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. However, few minutes later, 14-year-old Aitzaz Hasan, prevented a suicide bombing attack on the school, courageously saving 2000 pupils, and embraced martyrdom in the process. Aitzaz’s sacrifice affected everyone and his death was mourned and eulogised everywhere. However, given the spreading geography of fear, life soon returned to what can be tragically termed as normal.
Eerily reminiscent of the January attack, on 16 December 2014, what began as a normal turned into a day of mourning and national reflection itself, for the Army Public School, Peshawar, came under a terrorist attack that left 148 dead; and 134 were children. The attack was launched specifically by the Khorasani group of the Pakistani Taliban, in retaliation of the Pakistani military’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb. There was an outpouring of grief, solidarity, condolences and condemnation from not just within Pakistan, but from world over.
Educational institutions coming under attack isn’t a new thing; there have been several such cases in the recent part alone. These acts are often highly condemned, but they generate widespread fear, and the state promises to doing “more” vis-à-vis security as well as bringing culprits to justice.
The immediate and instinctive reaction felt by all was one of immense grief, and above all, anger. Anger at being helpless and at why the government had taken no concrete measures to address terrorism in the past and especially this particular incident, for which there was credible intel on. As a knee jerk reaction, in response to the civil society seeking the jugular, the moratorium on death penalty was lifted conditional to those booked under terrorism charges. Several faced execution. The sole designated governmental response body, the NACTA, which after many hiccups, had coughed up the national internal security policy, predictably went missing in action. The government formed a parliamentary committee of all political stakeholders to formulate a national action plan to counter terrorism and extremism and produce concrete proposals in seven days’ time. Massive crackdowns to flush out sleeper cells and miscreants across the country is underway. The civil society has intensified its activities such as holding vigils, country wide condolences, and protest rallies.
The executions, hailed by the larger segment of a perceptibly docile and liberal civil society, where necessary in terms of fear and punishment, only serve a quick fix and good optics, are by no means the answer to the problem. A day after the Peshawar incident, the initial bail and then rejection of the 2008 Mumbai attacks suspect Zia-ur-Rehman Lakhvi is proof that the criminal and overall justice system needs urgent and critical review and reform, as well as security of the judges. The need is for a stronger and independent judicial system, where neither judges nor witnesses need to fear for their lives; the justice system must be based on a purely professional, unbiased and balanced platform. Secondly, the entire security sector needs to be strengthened and though the risk of militarising the police by itself carries severe repercussions, stakeholders need to work this fine balance. One clarity that has emerged from this horrific massacre is that there are no good or bad Taliban; and secondly, as a nation Pakistan is at war; and thus, extraordinary measures need to be undertaken to confront the enemy.
Within hours of the Peshawar tragedy, the military high command visited Kabul and consulted the ANA and the ISAF high command regarding actions against TTP Chief Mullah Fazlullah and his militiamen hiding in Afghan territory. The Afghan side responded positively and the reciprocal visit by two military commanders to Rawalpindi affirms the support pledged. This is certainly a major success, as for once, neither Afghan nor Pakistani territory will be friendly and safe for terrorists. Secondly, the political government is also no longer considering North Waziristan or a specific territory as a troubled spot, but expanding its focus countrywide. The national action plan initially finalised eight proposals (later twenty) that touched upon: strengthening and restructuring the NACTA; the urgent need to reform the criminal justice system; the establishment of military courts in the FATA; the establishment of special courts and rapid reaction forces; repatriation of Afghan nationals; the registration of religious seminaries and their code of conduct was suggested. Channels of communication, information, propaganda and monetary resources of terrorist outfits should be monitored and chocked. Furthermore, the curricula and text books need to be revised and extremist narratives need to be neutralised. The misinterpretation of Quranic teachings, mosques and the hadith needs to be countered and corrected. A comprehensive and country wide de-weaponistion drive is one of the first measures to be undertaken.
Though the civil society’s reaction and populist demand for unleashing ultimate fury and revenge is a natural outpouring of the anguish the entire nation feels, one must not forget that similar provocations had resulted in a reluctant Pervez Musharraf laying siege to Lal Masjid – resulting in the death of a large number of children and young girls. The conflict equilibrium completely tilted and transformed as a result, with terrorism intensifying and expanding out of proportion.
One must not discount the numerous non-combatants getting killed by terrorists, as part of collateral – victims of aerial bombing or drone strikes. They all are equally precious and worthy as the children martyred at the Peshawar army school, who through their sacrifice, have hopefully opened the eyes of all those who harbored fantasies about terrorists’ intentions and possible utility as assets. The aforementioned measures in terms of security and law enforcement; political action; discontinuing support of all kinds; and economic, societal, educational and above all judicial actions to counter violent extremist elements can by no means be proposed and implemented overnight. Nor can the menace be wished away.
Already, retaliatory targeted attacks are testimony of the terrorists’ tenacity. Ideally led by the political government, however, where knee jerk responses formulated in an emotionally charged frame of mind cannot bring about change, and this tragedy, instead of becoming yet another collectable for the hurt locker, must become a turning point.
Otherwise, as one killer, after killing all the children in his range, asked his commander over the phone as to what to do next, once the enemy has killed all our children, there would be nothing left to save.