Could the Taliban’s school attack finally force Pakistan to confront extremism?

REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Students hold candles and placards for the victims of the Taliban attack at the Army Public School at Peshawar in Pakistan, during a candlelight march in Mumbai on Monday.

It takes an especially perverse kind of madness to engage in the mass murder of children for political purposes. 

But is the spectacle of Taliban suicide attackers storming a school, as they did in Pakistan this past week, enough to fundamentally change Pakistan’s fight against extremists? Or, after the deaths of 148 people – 132 of them students — after the protests and expressions of outrage, is the country just heading for more of the same?

Unfortunately, it can take a lot to be shocked by what happens in Pakistan. This is the country where Taliban gunmen pulled young girl from a bus two years ago and shot her in the head because she spoke out for educating girls. Malala Yousafzai recovered and won the Nobel Peace Prize this year for her efforts.

By all accounts, in a land badly divided in numerous ways, the attack last Tuesday on a school run by the Pakistani military in the city of Peshawar brought people together like few other events. Commentators dared to question whether this attack was so outrageous that it would finally break a cycle of violence and muddled responses.

Furious Pakistanis surrounded a prominent mosque in the capital Islamabad that is known for producing extremists. Its chief cleric had refused to condemn the attack. The government lifted a ban on executions of those previously convicted of terrorism. Six have been hanged already, and reports suggest dozens more could be heading for the gallows.

The government for months already had been engaged in an offensive against the Taliban in remote areas along the Afghanistan border – the very area where so many U.S. drone strikes have focused in recent years. So there were some signs that Pakistan’s approach already has changed.

The Taliban defended the school attack as revenge for that offensive, which may be an indication of how badly the group has been hurt.

Some respected analysts, such as Juan Cole, regard the Taliban’s school attack as a sign of weakness. Over the past six months, he said, the army had killed many of the Taliban and disrupted its organization. “They are facing a major defeat,” he said. “That is its significance.”

There is plenty of skepticism, though, that anything significant will change. Much of it stems from Pakistan’s attempts over many years to differentiate between extremist groups. Diplomats and journalists point to the Pakistani military’s policy of using some as proxies against rival India, even while it fights other equally violent and militant groups.

While the country still was deep in mourning over the school attack last week, a court released the alleged mastermind of a 2008 terror attack that killed 165 people in Mumbai, India, citing what it said was a lack of evidence. The decision was a major embarrassment for the government, which had to maneuver to keep Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi behind bars

As two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Rohde writes, American officials have long warned Pakistan that it will lose control of such groups and that they will turn on Pakistani targets. And they were watching to see whether officials would find a way to shift the blame to foreigners rather than Pakistanis. 

Following the school attack, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was widely quoted as saying Pakistan would no longer differentiate between “good” and “bad” militants. 

But it will be hard to unwind relationships and ways of doing business built up over many years. And the Taliban’s supporters across the society are hard to dislodge.

In the words of Ali Dayan Hasan, formerly Pakistan director at Human Rights Watch, clerics who support the Taliban are still on television and some commentators are finding a way to shift the blame away from domestic militant groups.  “The country’s myriad social and political fissures are likely to re-emerge through the anger and grief,” he predicted.

Pakistan can’t go on as it has after this attack, he said. “After all, if the cold-blooded mass murder of your children does not give you clarity about the Taliban, nothing else can or should.”

We know that plenty of people in Pakistan agree. But once again, that’s not likely to be enough.

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