Police stand guard outside a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, a day after a Taliban attack at Bacha Khan University killed 21 people. Security of educational institutions across the country has been intensified as militants appear to be targeting schools with more intensity. (EPA/ARSHAD ARBAB)

This commentary, by professors at Pomona College and the Harvard Kennedy School who have long studied Pakistan, argues that the Taliban’s attacks on schools and colleges there are a particularly dangerous threat to that nation’s future.

By Tahir Andrabi and Asim Ijaz Khwaja

The one year anniversary commemorations of the heinous attack on a Peshawar public school were barely over when gunmen once again went from classroom to classroom killing students and staff at a Pakistani university nearby. The sickening attack confirmed that the Taliban is waging a carefully considered ideological war in Pakistan — and the nation’s more than 200,000 public and private schools are now at the front lines.

In doing so, they are attacking the one area of Pakistani society where there is clear reason for optimism, as the growth of low-cost private schools in recent decades has given more and more young people, particularly girls, access to education.

Tahir Andrabi Tahir Andrabi
Asim I. Khwaja Asim I. Khwaja

There are very visible casualties of this strategy: not only Malala Yousafzai, now world-famous and a Nobel laureate, but Aitzaz Hasan, the 15-year-old boy who died preventing a suicide bomber from entering his school in the northern district of Hangu and chemistry professor Hamid Hussain, who died while trying to stave off the Taliban gunmen so his students could escape.

[War on Education: Links between the university attack in Pakistan and threats and violence on U.S. campuses]

Raw revenge is clearly a motive as the Taliban protest against military bombings of their hideouts in the tribal areas. But the Global Terrorism Database shows something more systematic is unfolding. Attacks on all educational institutions in Pakistan have gone up dramatically in recent years: from 82 between 2000 and 2008, to 642 from 2009 to 2013. The data also seem to suggest that the Taliban are shifting tactics.

Pakistani rescuers shift an injured victim outside the Bacha Khan university following an attack by gunmen in Charsadda, about 50 kilometres from Peshawar, on January 20, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/A MAJEEDA Majeed/AFP/Getty Images)

While the earlier attacks appeared largely focused on destroying school buildings, more recent attacks have resulted in more deaths: from 2010 to 2013 the number of fatalities per attack almost quadrupled. The Dec. 16 attack claimed 10 times as many lives as the next worst attack on education.

In economics terms, the Pakistani Taliban has shifted from attacking the supply side of education – the school building and staff – to attacking the demand side – the student.

The Taliban has already been successful with this approach on other fronts. Their attacks on polio aid workers have proven effective in disrupting the country’s entire public health system, causing enough doubt in the population and fear in healthcare providers that polio eradication efforts have faltered. Pakistan remains one of just three countries in the world where polio still exists, and the number of reported cases has risen.

[In deadly attack on Pakistani college, extremists take new aim at students]

Now the key area of education – where so much progress has been made – is becoming a target for similar tactics.

Together with Jishnu Das of the World Bank, we have been researching Pakistan’s education sector for nearly 20 years. During this time, Pakistan has undergone a transformation in education, with low-cost mainstream private schools now constituting a third of overall enrollment – and briskly outperforming government schools in educational outcomes.

Girls in particular have benefited from this school boom: more are in school than ever. The number of girls in higher education in Pakistan has exploded during the past decade, and there are now more girls than boys in college. And that means more children overall in Pakistan are getting an education – a particularly important fact for a developing nation where at least a third of the population is of school age.

This reality runs against perceptions in the West, where the notion that Pakistan is full of ideologically driven religious schools persists even though enrollment is well below five percent.
Research shows that the education debate in Pakistan is similar to the education debate in any other country: parents grapple with a choice of schools based on the usual set of considerations: Which of the schools nearby is best? How much should we pay? Is our child getting the best quality education?

Perhaps this very normalcy is why the Taliban is stepping up its attacks on schools.

The terror group has long gone after army installations, transportation hubs, police stations, and public services such as security and health care in an attempt to weaken the government. But education is a unique service – not only because it involves a country’s most precious resource, its children – but also because, by increasing human capital, it strengthens the state not only in the present, but in the future. The fact that this mutually bolstering interaction is one of the few things holding Pakistani society together is precisely why the Taliban wants to destroy it.

Will Pakistani citizens – and parents – maintain their growing commitment to education in the face of Taliban brutality? How much risk is too much? In surveys, we find that parents of Pakistani students are progressive, forward-looking, and don’t want religious indoctrination for their children. But if violence disrupts their mental calculus – if in addition to a school’s price, distance, and quality they add the consideration that their child could be killed – then parents may no longer behave normally, despite their preferences. Instead fear might compel them to withdraw from schools entirely.

As we speak, many schools are announcing temporary closure of facilities in the aftermath of the latest attack. The government has ominously warned that the Taliban may be winning psychologically – even as the army operation against them weakens their military capabilities.

Protecting more than 30 million children spread across thousands of locations is not something the security forces can accomplish by themselves or simply by targeting militant strongholds. Ordinary citizens must affirm by their beliefs, words, and actions in everyday life that they recognize the danger that resides among them. Until they can actualize their own agency in protecting these children, the most progressive social current in the country will be lost – and with time, so might Pakistan itself.

Tahir Andrabi is Stedman-Sumner Professor of Economics at Pomona College and a founding board member of Center for Economic Research in Pakistan. He has served as a member of the Economic Advisory Board of the Pakistan Ministry of Finance, a consultant to DFID UK and the World Bank. He has been involved in research, policy engagement and civil society initiatives in education in Pakistan for more than two decades.

Asim I. Khwaja is a Professor of International Finance and Development at the Harvard Kennedy School. He received the Tamgha-i-Imitiaz, Pakistan’s fourth-highest civilian award, for his work in education and was awarded a Carnegie Fellowship in 2009. He has published in American Economic Review and the Quarterly Journal of Economics on finance and institutions, and his work has been covered by numerous media outlets, including The Economist, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Al-Jazeera, BBC and CNN.