Pakistan: things just got much worse
22 Dec 2014|

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz SharifLast week’s horrific terrorist attack at a military-funded school in Peshawar in the northwest of Pakistan which killed 148 civilians, including 132 children, is without any doubt the worst in the country’s history, judged by the sheer depth of its depravity. Even though Pakistanis have gotten used to living with terrorism for over a decade, the scale of this act has shocked them to the core.

By deliberately targeting children in school and killing them in cold blood, the Pakistani Taliban, who claimed responsibility for the attack, have managed to unite all sections of society against them. The government of Pakistan and in particular the military, whose children were the victims, have no intention of letting this crime go unpunished. Moreover, the long-term repercussions of this attack will be felt beyond the borders of Pakistan.

A spokesman for the Pakistan Taliban, known as Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), claimed the attack was in retaliation for the ongoing military operation in North Waziristan, a tribal agency bordering on Afghanistan. That military operation began in June following the collapse of preliminary peace talks between the government and the TTP.

While the Pakistani military has killed well over 1000 militants, most of the TTP leaders and fellow ideological travellers, including from the Haqqani Network, escaped across the border into Afghanistan. There they joined Mullah Fazlullah, the leader of the TTP, who is reportedly operating from Kunar and Nuristan provinces.

Immediately following the terrorist attack, Pakistan’s Army chief, General Sharif, travelled to Kabul for a meeting with newly-elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the head of the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, General John Campbell. Undoubtedly, Gen Sharif will have demanded that the Afghan forces capture Fazlullah and hand him over to the Pakistan authorities. That’s easier said than done.

But more worrisome for bilateral relations—always difficult—have been statements by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (no relation to Gen Sharif) that indicate that unless the Afghan security forces prevent Taliban attacks from Afghanistan, the Pakistan military would engage in ‘hot pursuit’ of the TTP across the border in future.

Although President Ghani is keen to improve relations with Islamabad, it’s unlikely he would agree to that. But, given Pakistan’s military capability is significantly greater than Afghanistan’s, Kabul may have little choice but to acquiesce. That might be bad news for regional stability in the long run, particularly if those ‘hot pursuits’ lead Pakistan progressively to increase its military engagement in Afghanistan.

The only good news about this attack—if there is any given its depravity— is that it must mean the military operation is starting to bite. Perhaps the TTP believes that the military has decided to target all militants and that the days of differentiating between the ‘good’ Taliban (those who do not target the Pakistan state) and the ‘bad’ Taliban (those who kill everyone) are over. The Pakistani military has indeed repeatedly stated since the operation began that it was going after all terrorists.

Unfortunately, that commitment sounds rather hollow in the wake of the decision by an anti-terrorism court—one day after the massacre—to grant bail to Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi who is believed to have been the operational chief of the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), accused of having perpetrated the terrorist attack in Mumbai which killed 166 people in November 2008. The UN Security Council designates Lakhvi an international terrorist. Unless the government prosecutor appeals that decision, and does so publicly, Islamabad’s purported commitment to fighting all terrorists will lack credibility. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen.

Needless to say, India is fuming over the bail decision and preparing an official response. It’s particularly distressed by it given that Indian Prime Minister Modi’s government sent Pakistan its deepest condolences in the wake of the Peshawar massacre. This latest development will not help Indo-Pakistan relations which are already at a low given the recent heavy exchange of fire across the Line of Control in Kashmir and the terrorist attacks in Kashmir in early December (an attempt to disrupt forthcoming state elections).

And although bilateral relations between Pakistan and India began on a good footing following Modi’s election earlier this year, the Indian prime minister has made clear that he won’t be as tolerant as his predecessor towards Pakistan when it comes to terrorist acts originating from Pakistan. Given India’s various defence and diplomatic commitments in Afghanistan, New Delhi is not about to assist Islamabad in dealing with its endless terrorist problem.

These latest developments presently have no direct bearing on Australia. But if Islamic State (IS) were to increase its presence in Pakistan—and there are indications that already some Taliban factions have sworn allegiance to it—that may well have ramifications for Canberra.

So let’s hope for the sake of regional stability that Islamabad does indeed deal once and for all forcefully with all terrorist and Jihadist groups. This latest massacre of school children sadly confirms that ‘friendly’ terrorists can easily turn against the Pakistani state in a classic case of policy blowback. It’s in no one’s interest that such an attack occurs again.

Dr Claude Rakisits is based in Washington DC. He’s a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and a Senior Fellow at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Image courtesy of Flickr user DFID – UK Department for International Development.