Pakistan: Lessons from a tragedy
The Peshawar attack will go a long way in defining how the establishment deals with terrorism
The horrific terrorist attack on Pakistan’s Army-run school in Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has begun to define Pakistan’s civil and military leadership’s response to Islamic terror. Since that December 16 incident, a number of important decisions have been taken, including the lifting of the ban on the death penalty and the establishment of special courts to try terror suspects.
Peshawar is Pakistan’s troubled frontier town. A city of nearly 3.5 million people, it has remained at the frontline of Pakistan’s 11-year war against terrorism. During this time it has seen the killings of hundreds of civilians and personnel belonging to law enforcement agencies. These have happened in countless attacks by the Pakistani Taliban since 2003.
This year the Pakistani Army entered the tribal areas in an attempt to tackle militancy and also to secure its borders with Afghanistan to prevent Al-Qaeda operatives from accessing Pakistani areas.
To avenge their losses at the hands of the Pakistan Army in the tribal areas and especially after the Lal Masjid operation in Islamabad, the militants began attacking soft targets. Due to its proximity to the tribal belt, Peshawar became the favourite target of the terrorists. In October 2009, a car bomb exploded in the busy Meena Bazaar that killed at least 137 people, most of them women and children.
However, no terrorist activity can match the brutality of the December 16 attack on the innocent students at the Army Public School and College (APSC) of Peshawar. A total of 132 children and nine staff members were killed by seven terrorists.
Looking back, one now needs to ask if such a tragic incident could have been avoided.
The Army Public School is located on a link road from the main Warsak road in the northern part of Peshawar. The school’s premises can be accessed from three sides: the well-guarded Warsak road and Defence Colony in the east and south, respectively, and from an unguarded, less-frequented road in the west that the terrorists associated with the Maulana Fazalullah-led Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) used to enter in a white Suzuki van loaded with AK-47 rifles, Improvised Explosive Devices and hand grenades.
Unnoticed, the terrorists reached the school’s auditorium, where many students were getting first-aid training. At least 100 kids were killed inside. Most of the bodies had piled up near the exit, a sign that the students were shot while ttrying to escape.
One of the lucky students who managed to escape from the auditorium later told the media that some students tried to hide under the seats, but one of the terrorists saw them and told others to shoot them there.
An Army source revealed that two specialised units that rushed to the site in no time were confronted with a hostage-like situation. “The terrorists, wearing suicide vests, were firing from inside the classrooms, making it difficult for the commandos to shoot as they couldn’t risk shooting the children in the crossfire,” the source said.
The Quick Reaction Team (QRT) reached in good time. That was how their commandoes could rescue at least 960 students by escorting them through the northern access gates. Abdul Mobin, a seventh-grade student at the school, shared his experience of the rescue operation as a scary action-filled drill. “Two commandos entered our classroom and told us to follow them and do as they did. One soldier led us to safety by running low and firing in the air. The other followed us by running backward behind our queue. There was firing and shouting everywhere,” he said.
The bloodshed at the APSC continued for an hour-and-a-half, compelling the authorities to seek help from the Al-Zarrar commandos, especially trained for tackling such difficult situations. By then, however, 132 students had been killed.
The Al-Zarrar commandos arrived in two military helicopters from their headquarters in Tarbela, 149 km east of Peshawar, and began the battle to gain control of the school from the terrorists who began to blow themselves up as instructed by their handlers.
The terror attack struck a body blow to the army as most of the students were children of defence personnel. Some Pakistani media outlets were quick to speculate that the school attack had been planned by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and its Afghan counterpart, National Directorate of Security (NDS), in Kabul a few months back. At least two private news TV channels alleged that a meeting between the Indian national security adviser and the head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Maulana Fazalullah, had taken place. Tehrik-e-Taliban owned up to the attack and claimed that they wanted the Pakistan army to experience the pain they felt when their families were bombed in FATA and other tribal areas.
Later, the media learnt that the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NCTA), through a letter “Threat Alert 802”, dated August 28, 2014, had warned all concerned provincial government offices and law-enforcing agencies of the possibility of an attack on education institutes and had requested for “extreme vigilance and heightened security”. The letter had specifically mentioned “Army Public School/ colleges and other education institutes being run by Pakistan Army (particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa)”. Still, no extra measures were taken to improve security at the said APSC or any other Army-run school in Peshawar.
Embarrassed by the attack, Pakistan sent its Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, to Afghanistan to persuade the Afghan government to take action against the Pakistani Taliban living in Afghanistan’s Ningrahar and Kunar provinces. General Sharif requested Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai to arrest and hand over TTP terrorists to Pakistan. However, the President is believed to have pointed to the handover of a number of Afghan Taliban men detained by Pakistan, including the former Taliban number two, Mullah Abdul Ghani Biradar, who has been in detention in Pakistan since 2010.
Following the attacks, the Pakistan Army’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) established two dedicated telephone numbers: 1125 for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa(KP) and 1135 for the rest of the country. These can be accessed round the clock to report any suspicious activity, person, vehicle or object to a centrally controlled location which would forward it to the concerned departments for rapid action.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police and Pakistan Army also started to carry out search raids in areas around the APSC and other parts of the city, arresting a number of suspects. The Army has also beefed up security around the city and a number of fresh security checkpoints have been established for snap checking.
The Inspector General of Police believed that peace in Peshawar was directly related to the establishment of government writ in the areas of Fata adjacent to Peshawar. “The terrorists are able to operate from their bases in these restive areas. Any security measures around the city would be meaningless and Peshawar would remain at risk until the tribal areas are secured,” he said.
Brigadier (Retd) Mehmood Shah, defence analyst and an expert on the tribal areas, believes that the best chance of securing Peshawar is hidden in the cleansing of the suburbs of Peshawar. “We need to secure the suburbs of Peshawar first. The nearby villages must be cleared of the militants and their supporters. It is not impossible, many countries have done this in bigger cities than Peshawar,” he said.
Initial intelligence reports suggested that the school attackers were helped by the Afghan refugees who ran the school’s canteen. The attack has certainly made life difficult for the Afghan refugees living in Peshawar and other parts of KP. Many illegal refugees have been taken into custody on suspicion of their involvement in anti-Pakistan activities. The federal and provincial governments are seriously considering the repatriation of the Afghan refugees who have been living in Pakistan for the past 35 years. This could trigger another crisis. Mehmood Shah said: “Our Afghan guests have stayed here for many years. They should go back to
The actions by the Pakistan government and Army are spurred by revenge. The hasty decisions can only yield temporary benefits. It is time for the leadership to work on finding ways to deal with the anti-Pakistan mindset of the militants and their groups that were once the country’s “strategic assets”.