Intro: After showing resolve to end terrorism, as the dust settled on the Peshawar tragedy, the murmurs of dissent started appearing within the Pakistani society.
In a heinous attack on Army School Peshawar on 16 December 2014, terrorists killed 149 people including 134 school children. Nine terrorists in military uniform entered the school in the early hours of 16 December and opened fire on school staff and children, killing134 schoolchildren, ranging between eight and eighteen years of age. A large number of other school children were injured in the attack. Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Mohammed Khurasani claimed in a phone call to the media, that theTTP suicide bombers had carried out the attack in revenge for the killings of Taliban members at the hands of Pakistani authorities. TTP claimed that they targeted the school because the Army targets their families and they wanted the army to feel their pain as most people killed in Operation Zarb-e-Azb were innocent women and children.
Retaliation from the Taliban was expected ever since operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched in June 2014. The attack was intended to hurt the army, and by targeting a secondary school with a large number of children from army families, the TTP succeeded in hitting where it hurt the most. In terms of its sheer impact on the armed forces, it was far more painful than the attack on the General Headquarters, the air stations, the naval ship and bases, or the mosque in Rawalpindi where army officers in the middle of Friday prayers, were slaughtered. In terms of its impact, the attack also surpassed the recent carnage at the Karachi airport and at the Wagah Border. The attack created widespread indignation within Pakistan and almost all political parties within Pakistan agreed for a drastic action against TTP. It was a sudden volte-face, all those, who had been courting TTP, talking of rapprochement and talks with it, suddenly changed their opinion taking a cue from the army chief, General Sharif.
The global community also grieved with Pakistan the loss of innocent lives. All major world leaders from UN Secretary General to Prime Minister Modi expressed their sorrow at the dastardly act. In India, irrespective of the recent hostilities, there was genuine outpouring of grief.
Within Pakistan the reaction was swift, a large number of strikes were launched on the terrorist hideouts in tribal areas, and in a knee jerk reaction the government terminated its moratorium on the death penalty. Many of those awarded the death penalty and waiting for years, were executed immediately in different jails across the county, sometimes even without adhering to the laid down judicial process. Army has claimed large-scale success in killing terrorists in dozens of aerial attacks since the attack in Peshawar. In Tirah valley in Khyber Agency, alone, it has claimed to have killed over 70 militants, including Umar Khalifa, believed to be the mastermind of attack on army Public School. Hundreds of other ‘militants’ have been killed in air strikes over North Waziristan, Khyber parts of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa and The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Although, the army has claimed that all those killed in aerial strikes were terrorists, it is virtually impossible to do so from air, especially when air attacks are taking place with such amazing regularity and frequency. In addition, the security forces launched a number of operations in Karachi and Punjab and have claimed to have eliminated a large number of terrorists there.
For the first time, since it came to power, the government of Nawaz Sharif overtly expressed its desire to eliminate all terrorists. The army also stated that there are no good or bad Taliban and all such elements need to be eliminated. The army chief travelled to Kabul and succeeded in getting Afghanistan to cooperate in anti-Taliban operations. Consequently simultaneous operations have been launched by Afghan army in Kunar province and by Pakistan army in FATA, ostensibly to eliminate TTP chief Fazlullah and other leaders of TTP.
The army has also demanded the setting up of military courts by amending the Pakistan Army Act 1952, so that the civilians involved in terrorist activities directed against the military or military installations could be court martialled, instead of being tried and convicted by regular courts or anti-terrorism courts. More significantly, despite Pakistan’s proclivity for the military rule, there has been widespread support for the proposal of setting up military courts to try the terrorists. It appeared as if the entire Pakistani establishment had come together to eliminate the menace of Islamic terrorists.
However, as the dust settled on the Peshawar tragedy, the murmurs of dissent started appearing within the Pakistani society. There were sections within Pakistan including the cleric from Lal Masjid, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who were not ready to condemn the incident unambiguously and offered only conditional condemnation of the incident. Even more significantly, the TTP tried to justify its attack on school children by quoting from Islamic lexicon, and stated that it was in conformity with the norms established by the holy prophet and they had accordingly not targeted the smaller children, although they could have easily done so. More significantly, after turning down few appeals by convicts on death row, the Pakistan’s judiciary, which has exhibited radical proclivities, released Maliq Ishaq, a known Sunni sectarian terrorist, who had publically boasted about having personally killed hundreds of Shias. As if that was not enough, the Anti-Terrorism Court granted bail to Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the master mind of 26/11 Mumbai blasts, though there were numerous voice samples and technical evidence including Ajmal Kasab’s testimony to prove that he was directing the terrorists during Mumbai attack and had initially recruited and trained them. After, initially cancelling his bail, the High Court also granted him bail. Although, he was arrested again by the authorities on another case and an appeal has been filed in Supreme Court against the bail- the incident exhibited the sympathetic attitude of the Pakistani judiciary towards Islamic terrorists.
More significantly after supporting the establishment of the military court, the political parties realised the inherent dangers to democracy and have started expressing their reservations. Pakistan People’s Party opposed it in Senate and even others have started showing dissent. In the senate, a member from Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazal-ur-Rehman) asked as to who had trained the people and sent them to Kashmir and Afghanistan. He further asked as to why their names were not being revealed and suggested that for his role, former DG ISI, Hameed Gul should be hanged first and then former Chief of the Army Staff, Aslam Beg. He also wanted to know as to who had identified the Taliban, who are now being branded as terrorists and why did the army chief stay in the US for 15 days and for what purpose did the prime minister receive $1.5 billion from Saudi Arabia. More significantly, it appears as if there are sections within the army, who are not willing to go along with the recent drive of the Army Chief against all militants.
Consequently, firings have started across the Line of Control and are resumed periodically as these elements know that the Indian security forces will respond in strength and this could aggravate the situation along Pakistan’s Eastern front forcing it to halt operations against TTP in FATA and shift troops to the East. To create further fissures amongst the Pakistani armed Forces, Adnan Rashid, the former Air Force personnel, recently released a video, where in impeccable Queen’s English he castigates Pakistan’s armed forces and accused them of fooling innocent men, by using them to meet their objectives in Kashmir and Afghanistan.
In days to come, we could see further fissures within the forces and consequently, increase in firings across the Line of Control and International border. General Sharif, despite his intentions to eliminate all militants, is unlikely to succeed as he is relatively straight and not as shrewd and vicious as his predecessors. Consequently, he will face overt and covert opposition to his actions within the military and political establishment.
Alok Bansal(The writer is Director Centre for Security and Strategy, India Foundation.)