Peshawar school attack: Arcs of extremism

If escalating violence is the consequence of the massacre, then the Pakistani government will have failed

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The massacre of the innocents at Peshawar’s Army Public School proves one thing above all; that Pakistan’s Taliban is, if anything, even more driven, ruthless and cruel than its counterpart and predecessor in Afghanistan. The Peshawar tragedy also demonstrates, in the most graphic manner possible, that the Pakistani authorities, and in particular the army, are as vulnerable as ever to Taliban attack, in this case in an appalling act of revenge for the army’s attempts to contain the group.

Nothing can justify such an act of barbarity. Yet we should understand the roots of it, and how difficult it will be to combat the Taliban. After all, the most powerful military force on the planet tried and failed to do so in Afghanistan, and the imminent departure of the last US troops, leaving behind a hopelessly fragile nation, will be a powerful symbol of that failure. The Pakistani military, proud and brave as it may be, is no match for such organised terror in North Waziristan.

In part, the Taliban is a creation of Pakistan and the West’s own making. It was, after all, the Pakistani ISI security service and the CIA that helped arm and train Taliban fighters during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. When the Russians left, and we allowed Afghanistan to fester under Taliban rule, it created a safe haven for al-Qaeda, and all that followed. We see now a toxic arc of extremism stretching from the Maghreb through Isis-controlled Syria and Iraq to the borders of India.

Should we talk to the Taliban in Pakistan, or Afghanistan for that matter? There are many intelligent, thoughtful and decent advocates of doing so, arguing as they do that the Taliban, like every other insurgent or terrorist force, will eventually come to terms. Imran Khan, the ex-cricketer who has set himself up as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s main rival,  has offered to act as a go-between. Yet his conciliatory stance towards the insurgent group, which has drawn criticism in Pakistan for leaning too far in its favour, rests on increasingly shaky ground after an attack of such brutality. The Taliban has shown little real interest in talk. Its agenda is the imposition on the country of its version of sharia, and it is willing only to discuss the timing of that particular project. Previous attempts at dialogue have collapsed. Many Pakistani Taliban leaders have pledged allegiance to Isis’s would-be caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. That is not an encouraging sign.

So instead, Pakistan is restoring the death penalty, fighting barbarity with barbarity, ignoring the suicidal intent of many Taliban warriors. The army will continue its campaign, and more air strikes will undoubtedly follow those that have already taken place. Mr Sharif has pledged that “the fight will continue”.

It has not been entirely futile: the Pakistani Taliban has been hurt by US drone strikes, and is finding itself more restricted to fighting in Peshawar, near its tribal lands. Some smaller groups have split, disagreeing on whether to negotiate with the Pakistani government and taking with them some of the umbrella group’s fighting force. Indeed, the Peshawar attack may be a slightly desperate act, hitting at the softest of targets. Afghanistan under Ashraf Ghani is also capable of proving a more reliable ally for Pakistan.

Broadly, though, the outlook for Pakistan is bleak. The long war with the Taliban shows no sign of resolution either militarily or politically. Pakistan has also taken too long to tame extremism and close those seminaries that preach hate and terror. Meanwhile, there will be more massacres of innocent people.