‘Someone screamed at us to get down and hide below the desks,” he said, adding that the gunmen shouted “Allahu Akbar” before opening fire. “Then one of them shouted, ‘There are so many children beneath the benches, go and get them.’ I saw a pair of big black boots coming toward me.”
— Shahrukh Khan, 16, a victim of the Peshawar school attack, speaking to Agence-France Presse
Welcome to the world of the Pakistani Taliban: Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP).
Blending Deobandi fanaticism with warped Pashtunwali traditionalism, despising individual freedom and intellectual curiosity, these fanatics found an Army school in Peshawar to be a tempting target. Some might be shocked by this attack, but I am not. This kind of rampage has been coming.
This summer, I warned that Pakistani politicians and security officials were juggling with fire in their flirtation with the TTP. Led by Fazlullah, an unrepentant psychopath, the TTP has escalated its atrocities. Attacking Christian and Shia Muslim religious sites, cafés, and women (Fazlullah directed the attack on the now-famous schoolgirl Malala), the TTP, like the Islamic State, seeks a return to medieval authoritarianism.
So now Pakistan has its 9/11 moment. Facing the loss of more than 140 children, will it end its dalliance with terrorists? The early signs are somewhat hopeful. Recognizing the pure horror of this attack, Pakistani politicians of all stripes have reacted with outrage. Imran Khan, for example, sent out tweets that suggested his support for military reprisals. While that might seem an obvious reaction, Khan up until now has played to the TTP for his own interests while blaming America for Pakistan’s problems.
Defeating the TTP, however, will take more than a few highly publicized military actions in the coming days. It will require a sea change in Pakistani politics. Supported by networks of local patrons and propelled by paranoia over Afghanistan, Kashmir, and India, powerful members of the Pakistani establishment have long regarded the TTP and other terrorist groups as proxies for their own interests. Consider the undeniable support of Pakistan’s primary intelligence service, the ISI, for the Haqqani network, a group responsible for killing NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. Want to understand that relationship? Watch Homeland.
Pakistan has been toughening its stance against the TTP over the past year, but this attack is a symptom of Pakistan’s fatal hesitancy to directly confront TTP. Pakistan’s future now rests on the pivot between those who recognize that these terrorists cannot be leashed and those who see them as tools to use for their own ends.
This isn’t just a Pakistani concern. Given that India’s new prime minister doesn’t easily tolerate Pakistani support of terrorist groups, the TTP has the potential to spark a war between India and Pakistan — two nuclear powers. And despite recent signs of hope in Afghanistan, the American military there will have to be on watch. We must also be on guard for new TTP plots against the homeland, because the group will probably attempt to emulate the Islamic State in its reach. This is no small concern. After all, TTP was responsible for the Times Square car-bomb plot, and is supported by a small but sizeable element of Britain’s Pakistani community.
Western politics also matter here. With so many in the West more concerned with the rights of terrorists than the realities of the threat we face, we must isolate those who would tie our hands in this fight. Start with U.N. special rapporteur Ben Emmerson. Last week, Emmerson demanded prosecutions against CIA officers who have saved American lives. And last year Emmerson issued a ludicrous report that condemned the CIA drone program in Pakistan — the same program that has smashed groups like TTP and that prevent the export of jihadist atrocities to the West.
Above all, we must take heed of what December 15 proved — if further proof is needed. Monday morning, hundreds of children woke up full of hope. Tuesday morning, their coffins and the rows of their names on a list of the deceased reveal the bloody price of Islamist fanaticism. Pakistan and the world must honor their memory with our resolve.