A horrific attack on a military-run high school in Peshawar, Pakistan, has killed at least 141 people, 132 of whom were children and teenagers attending the academy. The slaughter, carried out by six Taliban terrorists, is the single worst terror attack in the country's history and one of the most brutal assaults on a school anywhere. Even in conflict-ravaged Pakistan, it seems an unprecedented act.
The Pakistani Taliban asserted responsibility for the massacre, calling it retaliation for the military's ongoing campaign against the militants' strongholds in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. For the Pakistani Taliban, schools are vulnerable, "soft targets." By some accounts, the group has struck at more than 1,000 schools in the country since 2009.
These include many schools for girls. In areas under their watch, the militants seek to discourage female education. The conspicuous defiance of one Pakistani schoolgirl, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, nearly got her killed in 2012, when Taliban militants attempted to gun down the teenager and a few of her friends.
In addition to turning education into a security risk for countless children, the Pakistani Taliban has created a public health crisis in corners of the country. Polio has returned among children after the militants banned health workers from distributing vaccines, a consequence, in part, of a CIA vaccination ruse a few years ago in its search for Osama bin Laden.
The Pakistani Taliban emerged around 2007 as a loose coalition of militant factions in Pakistan's restive border areas. It is an indigenous movement that largely targets the machinery of the state and Pakistani citizens, and wants to impose shariah law on the country. Defeating the group, though, has proved bewilderingly difficult. Here are some reasons why.
The Pakistani Taliban's insurgency takes place in a complex geopolitical landscape. The group's top warlords swear fealty to Mohammad Omar, the totemic leader of the Afghan Taliban, an institution that is still linked to elements of the Pakistani military and state and whose leadership still finds sanctuary across the border in Pakistan.
The group draws its support in largely Pashtun areas neglected by both the Pakistani and the Afghan state. Religious seminaries, known as madrassas — many set up with funding from countries such as Saudi Arabia — helped incubate the brand of puritanical fanaticism that defines the Taliban movement.
But since the 2001 U.S.-backed war in Afghanistan, which ousted the Afghan Taliban government, the militants have been forced into retreat and guerrilla war. Their designs on taking power look checked, but their insurgency is resilient. Terror attacks, suicide bombings and destabilizing strikes such as this school massacre have become the Taliban's signature in both countries.
"The militants know they won't be able to strike at the heart of the military. They don't have the capacity. So they are going for soft targets," Pakistani security analyst Talat Masood, referring to the Pakistani Taliban, said in an interview with the news agency Agence France-Presse.
As Kabul fumes over the continued presence of Omar and his allies in Pakistan, the Pakistanis have pointed the finger at the supposed haven given to Pakistani militants by the Afghans. The transfer of a top Pakistani Taliban commander from U.S. detention in Afghanistan to Pakistani authorities last week was seen as a positive sign for future cooperation between Kabul and Islamabad.
Pakistan's politicians have in the past been reluctant to fully confront the Taliban menace. After coming to power in the summer of 2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other key politicians spent months attempting a hatch a peace process with the Pakistani Taliban. There was even a cessation in U.S. drone strikes against the militants — attacks that had been quietly enabled by the Pakistani military and state, yet denounced by many politicians in public.
Not all of Pakistani public opinion is against the militants, with a greater majority suspicious of the United States and neighboring India. Fiery opposition figures such as the former cricketer Imran Khan have spent far more effort and time campaigning against Sharif's government and denouncing the perfidy of outside forces than the terrorist groups in Pakistan's midst.
But the proposed talks fell through, in part because of the continued violence and terror waged by the Pakistani Taliban. Now, as a nation mourns and reacts to a new dark chapter in its troubled history, hopefully a more durable consensus will emerge over what's to be done about the Taliban and the political forces that allow it to flourish.
It's likely that the military campaign against the militants will intensify. And that's saying quite a lot: Operation Zarb-i-Azb ("the Prophet's sword") has already displaced nearly a million people in Pakistan's tribal areas and laid waste to whole towns.
It doesn't help that some within Pakistan's intelligentsia and elites still try to distract from the root problems and peddle delusional ideas about the involvement of foreign actors. Even as the nation reacted in horror to the school massacre, the same tired conspiracy theories got trotted out. The attack, one Pakistani analyst said, was the product of the collusion of Afghan and Indian intelligence services.
Another prominent newscaster tweeted darkly that the date of the attack was no coincidence.
— Ahmed Quraishi (@AQpk) December 16, 2014
It's worth unpacking that tweet: Dec. 16, 1971, is the day the Pakistani military signed the "Instrument of Surrender" to India, after a brief war in which Indian forces liberated what was then East Pakistan and now the independent republic of Bangladesh. A campaign of genocide unleashed by the Pakistani army had seen hundreds of thousands — if not millions — slaughtered and had sent millions of refugees across the border into India.
That, more than four decades later, some in Pakistan think India's intervention was "unprovoked" is a chilling insight into the denial among a coterie of Pakistani nationalists.
There is also no evidence that India's security apparatus has abetted the Pakistani Taliban, an organization that has no love for the Hindu-majority state. But the proliferation of these conspiracy theories, compounded by blustering over the combined plots of the CIA and the Israeli spy agency Mossad, is now commonplace in Pakistan. And it's a major impediment to confronting a history of tolerating and encouraging regional militancy, for which only the Pakistani state is to blame.
The same knee-jerk hostility was on view earlier this year when Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Islamists and some hard-line Pakistani nationalists denounced the young education advocate as a stooge of foreign interests.
Reacting to the Peshawar school attack, Yousafzai said she was "heartbroken by this senseless and cold-blooded act of terror." But she did so from exile in Britain, where she lives still under threat from Pakistan's extremists.