It was a massacre of the innocents. Every report must admit this – because it’s true. But it is not the whole truth.
The historical and all-too-real connections between the Pakistan army, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) security police and the Taliban itself – buoyed by the corruption and self-regard of the political elite of the country – may well explain just how cruel this conflict in the corner of the old British Empire has become. And the more ferocious the battle between the military and the Islamists becomes in Waziristan, the more brutal the response of the Islamists.
Thus when stories spread of Pakistani military barbarity in the campaign against the Taliban in Pakistan – reports which included the execution of Taliban prisoners in Waziristan, whose bodies were left to lie upon the roads to be eaten by animals – the more certain became the revenge of the Taliban. The children of the military officers, educated at the army school just down the road from the famous Edwardes College in Peshawar – were the softest and most obvious of targets. For many years, the ISI and the Pakistani army helped to fund and arm the mujahedin and then the Taliban in Afghanistan. Only a few months ago, the Pakistani press was reporting that the Saudis were buying weapons from the Pakistani army to send to their rebel friends in Syria. Pakistan has been the tube through which America and its Arab allies supplied the anti-Russian fighters in Afghanistan, a transit route which continued to support the Taliban even after America decided that its erstwhile allies in that country had become super-terrorists hiding Osama bin Laden. Turkey is today playing much the same role in Syria.
David Gosling, who was the principal of Edwardes College for four years until his return to Britain in 2010, believes that while individuals in the Pakistani army may wish for revenge after the Peshawar schoolchildren atrocity, the military may well now “soft-peddle their activities in Waziristan”. The Taliban, he says, “has always reacted to the army’s campaigns in Swat and Waziristan with bombs. The Pakistan army is going to be very disturbed by all this. Attacking civilian targets has a powerful effect on the population. These are soft targets. The army is going to be furious – but you have these close links between the ISI, the army and the Taliban...”
For years, the Pakistani authorities have insisted that the old loyalties of individual military and security police officers to the Taliban have been broken – and that the Pakistani military forces are now fully dedicated to what the Americans used to call the “war on terror”. But across the Pakistan-Afghan border, huge resentment has been created by the slaughter of civilians in US drone attacks, aimed – but not necessarily successfully targeted – at the Taliban leadership. The fact that Imran Khan could be so successful politically on an anti-drone platform shows just how angry the people of the borderlands have become. Pakistani military offensives against the Taliban are now seen by the victims as part of America’s war against Muslims.
But if the Pakistan security forces regard the Taliban as their principal enemy, they also wish to blunt any attempt by India to destroy Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan; hence the repeated claims by the Afghan authorities – if such a term can be used about the corrupted institutions of Afghanistan – that Pakistan is assisting the Taliban in its struggle against the pro-American regime in Kabul. The army hates the Taliban – but also needs it: this is the terrifying equation which now decides the future of Pakistan.
It may well be that the Taliban, knowing the dates of the American withdrawal in Afghanistan, now wishes to extend its power in Pakistan. More seriously, the greater the extension of Islamist rule in the Muslim Middle East – in Algeria and Libya, as well as in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, even in Lebanon – the more encouraged the Taliban becomes. As Sunni Muslims, they have often inflicted enormous carnage on their fellow Shia citizens in Pakistan – although without the headlines devoted to yesterday’s massacre.
“You must remember,” Gosling says, “how enraged people were with the Israeli attacks on Gaza this year. People in Pakistan were furious at the casualty toll – more than 2,000 people, many of them children.”
Needless to say, the phrase “massacre of the innocents” was not used about those children.
Eight deadly years
2 November Taliban suicide bomber kills 60 people in an attack on a paramilitary checkpoint close to the Wagah border crossing with India.
8 June A suicide bomber in the country’s south-west killed at least 23 Shia pilgrims returning from Iran.
22 September Twin suicide bomb blasts in a Peshawar church kill at least 85 people.
3 March Explosion in Karachi kills 45 Shia outside a mosque.
10 January Bombing in Shia area of Quetta kills 81 people.
22 November A Taliban suicide bomber struck a Shia procession in the city of Rawalpindi, killing 23.
5 January Taliban fighters kill 15 Pakistani frontier police after holding them hostage for more than a year.
20 September Militants kill at least 26 Shia on a bus near Quetta.
13 May A pair of Taliban suicide bombers attack paramilitary police recruits in Shabqadar, killing 80, in retaliation for Osama bin Laden’s killing.
5 November A suicide bomber strikes a Sunni mosque in Darra Adam Khel, killing at least 67 during Friday prayers.
1 September A triple Taliban suicide attack on a Shia procession kills 65 in Quetta.
9 July Two suicide bombers kill 102 people in the Mohmand tribal region.
2 July Suicide bombers attack Pakistan’s most revered Sufi shrine in Lahore, killing 47 people.
29 May Two militant squads armed with hand grenades, suicide vests and assault rifles attack two mosques of the Ahmadi minority sect in Lahore, killing 97.
1 January A suicide bomber drives a truckload of explosives into a volleyball field in Lakki Marwat district, killing at least 97 people.
28 December Bomb blast kills at least 44 at a Shia procession in Karachi.
9 October A suicide car bomber hits a busy market area in Peshawar, killing 53.
20 September A suicide bomber devastates the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad with a truck full of explosives, killing at least 54.
27 December Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and 20 other people are killed in a suicide bombing and shooting attack in Rawalpindi.