Pakistan takes on the Taliban as grief over Peshawar school massacre gives way to rage

Following the Peshawar school massacre in which 132 children died, the military have bombed militant targets in tribal areas amid a new-found resolve and hardening of attitudes towards extremism

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The Independent Online

The grief has given way to rage. Three days after Pakistan suffered its worst ever terrorist attack, with the massacre of 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar, the country has hit back.

In the tribal areas of North Waziristan and Khyber along the Afghan border, Pakistani jets strafed militant targets as troops combated militants on the ground. The military says that it has killed 77 as the assault presses on. For days, Pakistanis in major cities held candlelit vigils, placing flowers under portraits of the pupils who were killed in their school on Tuesday. Yesterday, they took to the streets to protest against pro-Taliban preachers and declare their resolve to end the threat that the militants pose.

Schools and colleges across the country have been closed until the new year. Major cities were on high alert yesterday amid fears that the Taliban will try and make good on its intention to slaughter more innocents. “We are bracing for another attack,” Khawaja Muhammad Asif, Pakistan’s Defence Minister, told The Independent. “There are reports that Punjab and other provinces are also threatened by terrorists – particularly soft targets like schools, public places where there is low security.”

The leader of the group that carried out the massacre has issued a warning. “If our women and children die as martyrs, your children will not escape,” Umar Mansoor warned. In the past, such threats provoked a terrified silence. No longer. In Islamabad, hundreds gathered outside the Red Mosque where extremist preacher Maulana Abdul Aziz is based. In recent days, he had been much in evidence on television supporting the Taliban.

“We are reclaiming our mosques,” Jibran Nasir, the organiser of the protest told The Independent. “These are our houses of worship and they should represent our concerns and not that of our enemies.” They came bearing signs, “Go Taliban Go” and “Apologists are the enemy”. One sign said, “Run, burka, run”. It was a reference to when Mr Abdul Aziz fled a military offensive against the Red Mosque in 2007 disguised in a burka. Others chanted, “Taseer is alive, is alive” – a reference to Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab who was killed by a zealot for defending a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.

Similar protests took place in Peshawar and the largest city of Karachi in the south. In Gujranwala, protesters held signs that bore feelings of vengeance. “The only good Taliban is a dead Taliban,” one said. Political and military leaders met yesterday to chalk out a strategy. A committee has also been established to devise an “action plan” that will have the consent of all of Pakistan’s political parties. 

“We are trying to devise a joint strategy with the Afghan government,” Mr Asif said. “Unless the two act in unison there won’t be peace in either country. This terrorism has to finish. The only way we can finish it is by joint action on both sides.”

The Taliban has been significantly weakened by the Pakistani military operation in North Waziristan over the past five months. The massacre in Peshawar is seen as a result of the pain it is facing, but also proof that  it retains the ability to strike vulnerable targets in Pakistan. There are hopes that Pakistan’s new unified resolve against the Taliban will endure this time. It will be severely tested by any terrorist violence that takes place.

The government now insists that it will take on all militants, regardless of their affiliation, marking a break with a long-standing policy of hitting some, making peace with others, and supporting those who remain. “We are not making any differentiation,” Mr Asif said of the new approach. “All Taliban are bad Taliban. Extremism of any kind – of thought, action, religious or political extremism – is bad. We have to eliminate them wherever we find them.”

The new mood, however, also carries it with strong desires for vengeance. A popular call over the last week has been to hang the militants and resort to extrajudicial means of dealing with them. Pakistan’s moratorium on the death penalty has been lifted, alarming human rights groups. Last night it was reported authorities had carried out two executions: media named the two executed men as Aqeel, alias Dr Usman, and Arshad Mehmood. The army chief, General Raheel Sharif, signed warrants to hang convicted terrorists who were involved in the 2009 attack on the army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi and an earlier assassination attempt of former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

Mr Musharraf, who is due to stand trial for imposing a state of emergency in 2007, resurfaced in recent days to stoke confusion. He has claimed that the Pakistani Taliban was created by Afghanistan and India. The pensioned dictator did not explain why his government repeatedly signed peace deals with the militants back then.

The Taliban has never enjoyed much support in Pakistan. But it has  benefited from those who deny it exists, and blame “outside actors” for the violence, or those who believe the militants are “misguided” and can be lured back into the fold of mainstream society. To counter such views, Pakistan will have to take longer-term measures that include reforming its religious seminaries, education system, and mosques. “Wherever extremism is bred and supported, we have to take them out,” Mr Asif said. The madrassas, he added, will have to “be regulated”. “Deregulated education is very dangerous.”

Pakistanis have been grateful for the solidarity they have been shown in recent days from across the world. As the country takes on the Taliban with a belated but seemingly determined resolve, it appeals for understanding.

“The world must give unqualified recognition of our sacrifices,” Mr Asif said. “We have lost more than 50,000 people. And our economy is in dire straits. The world must support us at this time.”