APS Massacre: What we remember, and what we forget

Mother of APS MartyrA public holiday has been announced and all schools will be closed in Peshawar to observe second anniversary of APS attack. There are some who say that the better observation would be for all children to attend school, which would be a greater defiance of the terrorist threat, but the most important is that we take the time to think about how to prevent another massacre from taking place. The only way to do this is to directly take on extremism completely and without any exceptions.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb has made important progress in reducing the ability of anti-state militants to carry out attacks, but it has not come near the claimed success of ‘breaking the back’ of militants. They may be less common, but major terrorist attacks continue, including those targeting students such as the attack on Bacha Khan University and the deadly attack on Balochistan police college in Quetta earlier this year.

However it is not only these attacks that show the threat of terrorism continues. ASWJ backed candidate Maulana Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi, son of Sipah-e-Sahaba founder Haq Nawaz Jhangnvi, was elected to Punjab Assembly just a few weeks ago. Only a few days ago, a mob of thousands attacked an Ahmadi masjid in Lahore. Today, while we are memorialising those innocent students who were killed by extremist militants, there religious extremists are literally marching through the streets of Lahore.

Today we remember the lives of those innocent children martyred by extremist militants, but have we forgotten the promise of zero-tolerance for extremism and tackling militant groups without exception?

Blaming Foreign Hands, Arresting Pakistanis

Bacha Khan Attack Suspects

Investigation are beginning to result in hard evidence about Bacha Khan University attack, and a familiar picture is emerging. Hawaldar media went into over drive to spread the story that India was behind the deadly terrorist attack. Foreign Office summoned Afghan envoy to register concerns about terrorists crossing the border into Pakistan. If terrorism is a foreign problem, though, why are so many Pakistanis involved?

Army already announced arrest of five facilitators, and now ‘Terrorist A’ has been arrested as well. Once again, he is not a foreign national and he identified other the terrorists who were also Pakistani.

According to the sources, the suspect said he had brought with him two attackers while the other two were already with another facilitator, Riaz, in Charsadda. He identified the four attackers, including an Afridi, one from Orakzai, one from Swat and one from South Waziristan.

This complicates our complaint to Afghanistan about terrorists crossing into Pakistan because it means that even when terrorists are training and coordinating in Afghan camps, they are first traveling to those camps from Pakistan. In other words they are crossing Pakistan border into Afghanistan first!

There are two important conclusions. First is that we need to stop blaming foreigners for trying to destabilize the country and try to figure out why so many Pakistanis are working to destabilize and terrorize their own country. Obviously something is terribly wrong and if we continue to ignore it it will only grow worse.

Second is that before we complain to Afghanistan about securing the border on their side we need to secure the border on our side to prevent militants from traveling into Afghanistan. Yes, that means that we can no longer turn a blind eye to militants who want to join the Afghan jihad, but we can no longer pretend that it is a one-way door. The price is too high.

Bacha Khan University: Attacking Non-Violence

Bacha Khan and Ghandi

The message is loud and clear on Bacha Khan’s death anniversary. Kabul and Peshawar bled on the same day when his followers were getting ready to commemorate the 28th death anniversary of non-violence preacher Bacha Khan, also known as the Frontier Gandhi. At the twilight of 15-year presence of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, violence continues unabated on both sides of the Durand Line.

Taliban terrorists precisely timed it to target a University named after Bacha Khan, the anti-colonial leader who preached non-violence all his life. Born as Abdul Ghaffar Khan, he rose to eminence in British India with his philosophy of non-violence and his followers revered him as Bacha Khan, the king of hearts without a kingdom. Awami National Party (ANP) named a University after him in his hometown of Charsadda in 2012. Like most other seats of higher learning established by ANP in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, Bacha Khan University was a prime target for the terrorists. As usual the slain were declared as “heroes”, “brave” and “resilient”, though they went there to impart and receive education. The blood-soaked scene was heart-wrenching and was the second major attack after the Army Public School (APS) massacre of December 2014 which claimed the lives of 145 innocent school children.

In a video statement, Taliban leader Umar Mansour has vowed to continue attacks on all educational institutes “which come from Britain and America”. Taliban wanted to demonstrate that violence is the only way they will achieve their objectives, nullifying the wishes of those leaders who have always advocated negotiating with them and offering them olive branches. Dozens were killed and injured in this incident by four Taliban terrorists who were later gunned down by security forces. The victims included Syed Hamid Hussain, a professor of chemistry who had a doctorate degree from U.K. He fought bravely with his licensed pistol and saved the lives of many students.

Taliban also wanted to give the message that they are as powerful and resilient as they have ever been. Operation Zarbe Azb has merely dislocated them and pushed them into Afghanistan where they are busy in their winter offensive against the fragile national unity government in Kabul. Pakistan has two very long borders; one each with India and Afghanistan and both of them are now heavily guarded by the Army. If these attacks are orchestrated from foreign soils, then terrorists are operating freely across these borders, and the Army has failed in its mission. The Pakistan government’s tall claims of “breaking the terrorists’ backbone” has once again fallen flat.

Pakistan’s counter terrorism strategy, formulated after the APS attack, has contributed little to the slight decrease in violence in 2015 while it has everything to do with internal Taliban rifts and splintering after the news of the death of its supreme leader Mullah Omar. The Pakistani State’s violent reaction after the 2014 school massacre has achieved little so far. Under the National Action Plan (NAP), Pakistan reinstated the death penalty and it failed to achieve its perceived objective of deterring the terrorists. You cannot deter a suicide bomber with death penalty; it is not only counter-intuitive, but counter-productive as well. In fact, it acted as a recruitment tool for the terrorists who used it effectively to stir anti-state sentiments.

The Bacha Khan University attack has led to an increase in the anti-India sentiment as Pakistani media quickly turned the general population’s attention towards a RAW involvement in the attacks, of course without any evidence. As it has turned out in the past, all major attacks inside Pakistan were carried out by Pakistani citizens who were all killed on the spot.  If the fragile peace overtures between India and Pakistan were shaken by the Pathankot attack, the Bacha Khan University attack has collapsed the negotiation structure altogether. The Pathankot attack was carried out Jaishe Muhammad, a supposedly banned Pakistani organization which operates with impunity all over the country. Consequently, the University attack has given the powerful military another chance to strengthen their position at home and ask for more Coalition Support Funds.

Pakistan has not only failed to tackle terror in all its manifestations, but it also resisted any indigenous efforts to initiate a long term solution to the problem. The non-violence lessons introduced by the ANP provincial government in the curriculum have been replaced by Jihad-inciting essays which leave little difference between secular and madrassa education in the country. The process of Islamization, vigorously initiated by Gen Zia ul Haq in the 1980s, has finally reached its zenith when a young boy from Punjab cuts his own hand off because he mistakenly raised his hand to disprove of the Prophet of Islam.

In the absence of counter-narratives to violence, terrorists will strike at will. There is sufficient capacity to tackle the terrorist groups in the country, however, there is insufficient will to neutralize all terrorists. The ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Taliban nomenclature is still in vogue. The country is bleeding profusely from home-grown terrorists and it is getting too late to put an end to them.

The blame game continues; while a Taliban faction has accepted the responsibility of the University attack, Khyber Pukhtunkhwa Chief Minister has stressed on India and Afghanistan to stop terrorism in Pakistan. India and Afghanistan have consistently asked Pakistan to stop the flow of terrorists being facilitated from the Pakistani side. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told CNN “Terrorists in Afghanistan come from China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and the Middle East”. It is beyond comprehension as to why would India and Afghanistan support an attack on a University named after Bacha Khan, who is more revered by Afghans and Indians than in his own country.

More recently, the implementation and effectiveness of NAP is now openly being questioned. The State of Pakistan is making it easier for all shades of terrorists, including the deadly Daesh, to cement their adobes in the country. President Obama was spot on when he said in his State of the Union address that Middle East and South Asia will remain unstable for decades to come. Let’s see if this changes anytime soon.

The author is a Washington DC based geopolitical analyst and author of the book Afghanistan – From Cold War to Gold War. He can be followed @asimusafzai                     

Army Finally Changing Its Tune?

Gen Asim BajwaFollowing Bacha Khan University attack, DG ISPR Gen Asim Bajwa has given a statement about breakthroughs in identifying the attackers. The statement was short of specifics, asking for patience as the sensitive information is properly processed and analysed. However there was something about the Army spokesman’s words that stood out. For the first time, the Army has admitted that the threat of terrorism is greater than we have been pretending.

The ISPR chief said, “As long as the facilitators and financiers of terrorists are present, they can carry out an attack at any place and time.”

“At any place and time.” This is a far cry from the triumphant claims of victory that Army has been making since the past year and a half. Since day one of Zarb-e-Azb we have been told over and over again how the terrorists are defeated, only to see fresh attacks take place.

Then attack against APS Peshawar was then termed as a game changer, but even though deaths have decreased from the highest levels, terrorist attacks remain constant and unrelenting. We were told that no longer would the Army discriminate between any militant groups, but still today we see ‘pro-Pakistan’ jihadis operating freely right under the noses of security agencies.

It is only a short sentence in the ISPR chief’s statement, and only time will tell if it symbolises a willingness to finally face reality and do the needful to change the course of history, or if it was just an unintended slip of the tongue that will soon be corrected with another premature declaration of victory, the wheel to continue spinning towards its inevitable end.

Hawaldar Media Response to Charsadda Attack Plays Into Terrorists Hands

Before the tears even had a chance to fall into the dust, hawaldar media officers were busily spinning to establish the accepted narrative about the deadly terrorist attack on Bacha Khan University. There are no surprises as it is once again the standard conspiracy theory that blames ‘foreign hand’ for every incident.

Should we bother noting the sheer hypocrisy of these anchors? Are they not the same who condemned Indian media for blaming Pakistan for Pathankot before any evidence could be found?

There is not point in showing this as it assumes that these anchors have some shame left. Instead, let us ask what is the point of this behaviour?

On one hand, blaming India provides a defence of Army’s reputation. After years of declaring that terrorists have been defeated, the continued attacks are embarrassing. How can these militants who have had their back broken continue planning and carrying out such attacks? This raises difficult questions that many would prefer not to hear. If it is actually Indian RAW behind these attacks, though, Pakistan Army is facing a much larger and more sophisticated enemy.

On the other hand it is easy point scoring after the embarrassment of Pathankot attack. Some might say it is wishful thinking that India is involved in the Charsadda attack because it makes us feel better about ourselves if we can believe that India is involved in terrorism. The problem is that this narrative actually helps terrorists because it supports their own narrative. If India is behind attacks inside Pakistan, “pro-Pakistan” militants like LeT and JeM are seen as defenders of the nation. It is the same ‘good Taliban’ and ‘bad Taliban’ narrative that has brought us where we are today because “pro-Pakistan” jihadi ideology easily becomes “anti-state” jihadi ideology as we have seen over and over again.

Much noise is made about uniting the nation in order to defeat extremism and terrorism. However it is not enough to merely be united if we are not united against the real enemy. Using India as a bogey is easy, but it gets us nowhere. If we are going to see the day when terrorists are studied in history classes instead of attacking classes, we have to face the reality. Media’s anti-India spinning only makes that day further away.