December 17, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Pakistan Taliban: Desperation and Atrocity

• In what may have been an act of desperation, the Pakistan Taliban attacked an army school in Peshawar on  December 16, leaving over 130 children dead

• This will not deter the Pakistan Army from continuing its campaign against the Taliban in Waziristan; if anything, if will make the fight fiercer

• Rather than pursuing political or religious objectives, the Taliban increasingly show themselves as a criminal enterprise

• High levels of militancy—and civilian deaths—will continue in Pakistan, but the army is making an impression, both on the Taliban and on al-Qaeda

• Pakistan’s standing with essential—if reluctant—allies, the U.S. and Afghanistan, has also improved.


Latest reports suggest that over 140 people died when Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistan Taliban, attacked a school in the Pakistan city of Peshawar on December 16. Almost all of the fatalities, more than 130, were children aged between 10 and 18. The attack by six gunmen, including suicide bombers, lasted for over five hours and the Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility soon after it began.

This is just one more dismal episode in the long and relentless loss of civilian life to violent extremism in Pakistan, which accelerated after the bloody end of the siege of Lal Masjid, a militant-run mosque and madrassa complex in the heart of Islamabad in 2007. It was soon after the siege that the Pakistan Taliban emerged, and the government and army have alternated since then between attempting to make deals with the militants and trying to destroy them. Inevitably, civilians have suffered in great numbers, with already 1,600 killed in 2014 before this latest attack, and over 3,000 dead in each of the previous two years.

The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan is not a branch of al-Qaeda, though some of its constituent groups support and harbor al-Qaeda members. Nor is it part of the so-called Islamic State, though again some Pakistani militants—to include a breakaway element of the Pakistan Taliban—claim to support the ‘Caliphate.’ It is essentially a bunch of tribesmen who fight to preserve their autonomy from central authority, mainly for criminal and commercial reasons. The Pakistan Taliban have little interest in politics beyond their immediate locality, and even less in religion. Like many terrorist groups, they amplify local grievances by claiming association with a larger cause. In fact, it is estimated that fewer than 50 Pakistanis have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, and even the Afghan Taliban have little to do with their Pakistani namesakes.

The school attack may not only expose but also increase the isolation of the Pakistan Taliban. It may both demonstrate and accelerate public rejection of this kind of violent extremism, just as did the Beslan school siege in North Ossetia, Russia in 2004, in which over 300 people died—more than 200 of them children. Certainly this attack appears deliberately insensitive to public opinion; although the Peshawar school is run by the army for army children, and the Taliban have claimed equivalence between these deaths and the deaths caused by the current military campaign in North Waziristan, Pakistanis, like everyone else, see children as children. To maintain public support, the army must ensure that its inevitable retaliatory attacks are carefully targeted.

Before this year, the Pakistan Army had argued that it lacked public approval for a new campaign in Waziristan, but following the inevitable collapse of peace talks initiated soon after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took office last year, it has mounted a determined attack that has pushed the Taliban out of towns that they have occupied unmolested for many years. It remains to be seen how long the army can control this territory, but it seems determined to try. The Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, is generally popular in Pakistan and thought less likely than his predecessor to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban, though clearly those that attack the Pakistan State are prioritized over those that do not. Importantly, General Sharif is slowly building trust abroad, helped by a successful visit to Washington last month immediately following a similar confidence-building trip to Kabul, Afghanistan.

It will take many years and much positive action to bring Pakistan’s relationship with the United States and Afghanistan to the point that those countries regard it as a trusted ally. The scale of anti-Americanism in Pakistan is still at an all-time high, but the campaign against the Taliban has also had a knock on effect on al-Qaeda: the Pakistan Army earlier this month killed al-Qaeda’s head of external operations, Adnan al-Shukrijumah, who was involved in the plot to bomb the New York subway in 2008, and reportedly captured two of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s daughters. It is hard to imagine the toll of civilian deaths and violent disorder in Pakistan coming down dramatically, and Karachi remains a city almost totally out of control, but the Peshawar school attack may signal a peak.


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