The Pakistani military carried out a "blitzkrieg" of airstrikes on suspected Taliban positions, allegedly killing dozens of militants. Authorities also lifted a moratorium on capital punishment in the country, and set about executing those with death sentences for terrorism charges. Six people have already been hanged, while some 50 more face imminent execution, according to reports. As many as 500 inmates on death row in Pakistan could be executed in the coming weeks.
Many are not impressed by this grim display of resolve. It is the response, observes Ahsan Butt, an assistant professor of international affairs at George Mason University, of a "punch-drunk state lashing out" with "the strategic equivalent of a non sequitur."
International rights groups fear that some of the Pakistani inmates slated now for execution are innocent of crimes. In their rush to avenge Peshawar’s slain children, Pakistan's leaders may be inflicting more injustice.
It's clear that many in Pakistan want the Taliban to pay for their crime. And it's also clear that there's a recognition among some Pakistanis that many of their country's wounds are self-inflicted. The Taliban, after all, were incubated for years by the Pakistani state as "strategic depth" in the larger geopolitical battles taking place in neighboring Afghanistan. In the past half a decade, a segment of the militants turned and targeted the machinery of the Pakistani state, imposing sharia law in remote areas where they held sway while killing hundreds of innocents.
Some Pakistanis came to tolerate a terrible dichotomy: the Pakistani Taliban were "bad," while others, whose forays across Pakistan's borders served the interests of elements of the military, were "good." The Afghan Taliban's leadership has long found sanctuary in Pakistan--so too other extremists, most notably Osama bin Laden.
Sharif has insisted no such distinction will be allowed, and that all the militant groups in the country "would be dealt equally with an iron hand." The Pakistani military has spent the better part of the year on a ruthless military campaign against Taliban factions in the country's rugged, remote tribal border areas. Thousands of militants have been killed and hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced.
But the problem of tackling militancy in Pakistan goes deeper than airstrikes and counterinsurgency. It's far too early to judge what lessons have been learned after the horrors of Peshawar, and who has learned those lessons. Public opinion over Islamist militancy remains mixed, with many more wary of supposed external enemies in the West and India.
As WorldViews discussed earlier, conspiracy mongers, Islamists and hard-line nationalists pinned the Peshawar attacks on India, on Afghanistan, on Arab outsiders – anyone but Pakistanis. The attitudes and ideologies that have condoned militancy in the past won’t go away overnight.
Just days after the massacre, a Pakistani court granted bail to a militant believed to be one of the masterminds of the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai. It was launched by Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamist militant group whose charity arm held a mournful mass prayer for the slain children of Peshawar and whose prominent leader Hafiz Saeed held a public gathering in the city of Lahore, blaming India for the slaughter – an absurd accusation that would be laughable were it not for the fact that far too many in Pakistan still choose to believe it.
Despite the consensus about dealing with the Taliban in their frontier hideouts, there’s little will among Pakistan’s political and military establishment to confront head-on groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and others that operate in the country’s heartland.
Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, writes at length on the roots of this schizophrenia, which he argues stems from the country’s origins as a haven for South Asia’s Muslims:
Pakistan’s constructed identity emphasises religion and ideology at the expense of ethnic, linguistic and sectarian diversity of a complex society. As a result, the country’s approach to national security has been driven by ideological rather than pragmatic considerations...The ideology of Pakistan, and the falsified historic narrative taught in schools to justify it, produces sympathy in society for Sharia rule, for an Islamic caliphate and an Islamic state. This works in favour of more than 33 militant groups that operate out of Pakistan. Pakistan’s strategic planners may see no difficulty in eliminating global terrorists and fighting local jihadis while supporting regional ones. But the general public is conflicted in its attitude towards jihadi groups. Unfortunately for those who want to stop the [Pakistani Taliban], their rhetoric about Sharia and against western values resonates with supporters of other, ostensibly ‘more palatable’, jihadi groups even if their methods are abhorred by Pakistanis.
The fragility of Pakistani nationalism – to this day, more South Asian Muslims are non-Pakistani than Pakistani – has allowed it to become an umbrella for unsavory extremism. That requires a very difficult reckoning, one for which some fear the country is still not ready.
“A national conversation like that remains improbable, however, in the climate of fear established by religious extremists and their many allies among mainstream political parties and the media,” writes Butt.
Some of the harshest critics of Pakistan’s security state doubt even the Peshawar massacre will shake the convictions of elements within the Pakistani establishment that remain tacitly or directly in collusion with extremist forces. This includes a wing of the ISI, Pakistan’s notorious military intelligence agency.
“Unfortunately, many tens of thousands of Pakistanis will die long before the army gives up its jihad habit,” writes Georgetown University's Christine Fair. “And there is absolutely no amount of American, British or other aid or forms of inducements that can change this basic truth."