Pakistanis, and sympathizers the world over, are mourning the Taliban’s horrific massacre of at least 132 schoolchildren and 13 staff in a crowded school in Peshawar.
On the surface, this obscene assault – in which the Pakistani Taliban hunted down children cowering under desks and burned a teacher to death – seems to have stiffened the backbones of Pakistan’s politicians, who have long waffled about confronting the country’s radical Islamists.
After the attack, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif swore to eradicate terrorism from the country. That would be great news not only for Pakistanis, but for the world: It would end the nightmare threat that terrorists might seize some of the country’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, a threat that makes Pakistan the world’s most dangerous country.
Let us hope, in the wake of this horror, that Sharif finally means it. Yet there are plenty of reasons to doubt Pakistan’s leaders will confront the jihadi cancer that is destroying their state.
After all, the Pakistani Taliban’s war on children has been going on for decades, virtually unchallenged. The International Crisis Group estimates that militants attacked about a thousand schools between 2009 and 2012. In late 2009, the Taliban threw a bomb into a cafeteria for female students at the leading International Islamic University in Islamabad, killing six, yet leaders of Pakistan’s religious political parties refused to condemn the group’s action.
In October 2012, the Pakistani Taliban shot 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai in the head for publicly promoting girls’ education. The government expressed outrage then, too.
Yet, despite her 2014 Nobel Prize – which she received only days before the Peshawar massacre – Malala is not honored in her own country; she can’t go home because of the danger of assassination. Instead of heeding her plea for more girls’ schools – in a country where female illiteracy is shockingly high – many prominent Pakistanis denounce her as a “tool” of the West.
Meantime, Pakistan’s education system is a disaster, leaving one-fifth of children without schooling while the curriculum extols jihad and religious intolerance. Thousands of madrassas (religious schools) actually train children to join the Taliban, yet politicians have backed off efforts to reform the madrassa curriculum because of strong clerical opposition.
How can one eradicate the terrorists in Pakistan when madrassas keep churning out more recruits?
And how can one believe Sharif when political and military leaders have been so conflicted about confronting the jihadis, despite years of atrocious attacks on civilians? There have been other heinous attacks in Peshawar, like last year’s bomb in an Anglican church, which killed 85 people. Yet Imran Khan – whose party controls the northwestern province in which Peshawar sits – refused until now to criticize the Taliban. Sharif also long waffled on taking on the group.
Moreover, the Pakistani military distinguished for years (despite denials) between “bad” Taliban who attacked them and “good Taliban” – meaning jihadi groups they helped form and train in order to attack their archenemy, India, in Kashmir. The “good” groups included the Afghan Taliban, whom the Pakistani military saw as a hedge against Indian interests in Afghanistan. And they included Pakistani jihadi groups that have slaughtered Pakistani minorities – including Shiites, Hazaras, Ahmadis, and Christians – in their places of worship and in processions.
Perhaps this week’s slaughter of children, in a school that served many military families, will change the thinking. Pakistan’s new army commander, Gen. Raheel Sharif, is said to regard all Taliban as an existential threat and is conducting a more far-reaching campaign against the militants than did his predecessor. As for Nawaz Sharif (no relation to Gen. Sharif), he swore this week that “there will be no differentiation between ‘good' and ‘bad' Taliban.”
“I’m not very optimistic that things will change because somebody says so,” I was told by Farahnaz Ispahani, a former Pakistani member of parliament and close aide to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto was slain in 2009 by the Pakistani Taliban as she ran for re-election on a platform that labeled the group an “existential threat.”
“Unless the political and military leadership decides that strategic depth (against India) is not worth all these dead children, nothing will change,” said Ispahani. She noted that Hafiz Saeed, allegedly the mastermind of the grisly 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, India, and leader of the terrorist group Jama'at-ud-Da'wah, still appears openly on Pakistani TV and leads massive rallies. (Saeed publicly blamed this week’s Peshawar massacre on India!)
“Until they say they will fight all terrorist groups, with no exceptions, nothing will change,” Ispahani added. “There has to be a change in the leadership’s mindset. … I need to see something solid.
“I hope for the sake of my country we will commemorate these dead boys and girls by saying ‘No' to all terrorists.”
Amen to that.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.