“Why Are We Suffering More Attacks Than You?”

Looking out at the Pakistan border from eastern Afghanistan, 2010. The flag marks the border crossing.

Looking out at the Pakistan border from eastern Afghanistan, 2010. The flag marks the border crossing.

The tragedy this week in Peshawar, in which more than 140 people–to include at least 132 children–were brutally hunted down and assassinated inside of a school, is an affront to all humanity. The leaders and militants of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the terrorists responsible for this atrocity, have proven beyond doubt that their ideology is nihilistic, anti-Islamic, anti-Pakistan, and anti-human. TTP claimed that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s western tribal areas are what “forced” them to attack the children of Pakistani soldiers who work with the U.S. While there is much to discuss about drone strikes, there is no moral justification whatsoever for an attack on innocents.

The innocents and Pakistan’s mourning citizens aren’t to blame; TTP is. But it must be noted that the government of Pakistan has long been at odds with itself and its ability to deal effectively with threats inside its own borders. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) has long sponsored militants within Pakistan’s borders, beginning with its years of brokering the U.S. and Saudi funds backing muhajedin fighters against the Soviets, to the Taliban during the 1990s, and more recently the Haqqani and Taliban militant groups that reside, train, and launch attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces from bases inside of Pakistan. The ISI also supported the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) attack in Mumbai in 2008. It has been in some ways astonishing over the years that the U.S. has poured billions of dollars in aid into Pakistan’s military instead of categorizing Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism.

But easy answers are rarely the right ones. Last year I heard Pakistan’s then-Foreign Minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, speak on Pakistan’s partnership with the U.S. in what we call the Global War on Terror. She described how, before September 11, 2001, Pakistan had experienced only one suicide bombing.  After 9/11, she said, “we lost count.” She pointed out that more than 6,000 Pakistani military and police members have been killed by insurgents, which is more than the U.S.’s casualty toll in Afghanistan.  She said that more than 30,000 civilians had been killed by the insurgency.  She said the full economic impact of the insurgency on Pakistan’s economy since 2001 was $75 billion, which dwarfs the millions of dollars annually given by the U.S. to Pakistan in foreign aid.  If Pakistan is not an equal partner against terrorism, she asked, “then why are we suffering more attacks than you?”

It has seemed to me that Pakistan’s fragile democratically-elected government, while absolutely vital to building stability in Pakistan, nevertheless has been unable–if not at times unwilling–to prevent other elements of the government from aiding militant groups. Pakistan’s government reluctantly permits U.S. drone strikes against some militant targets in the western provinces, yet others, such as Mullah Omar and other Afghan Taliban residing near Quetta appear to enjoy full safe haven there, if not also the explicit support of Pakistan’s military. The Taliban and Haqqani organizations routinely orchestrating attacks inside Afghanistan have been treated by Pakistan as the “good Taliban,” functioning as a hedge to thwart Afghan stability and the influence of India, Iran, the U.S., and others in Afghanistan. In response to years of attacks sponsored by the Pakistani government, the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) intelligence services have supported TTP in their attacks on Pakistani government targets as they’ve based themselves within Afghanistan.

All of this is senseless chaos. I’ve spent enough time in Afghanistan along the Pakistan border to see how clouded and infuriating this fight has been. Taliban fighters live safely just over the border, wage their attacks on U.S. and Afghan targets, then they go back to safety and sponsorship within Pakistan. Pakistani military may be your allies. Or they may be the ones working directly with the Taliban to fight against you. Afghans and Pakistanis recognize that attacks are the ISI’s proxies against NDS proxies. The war rages on, the death toll mounts, the attacks themselves escalate in their shocking barbarity.

Taliban groups, whether the “good” or “bad” flavor, have consistently attacked schools and children, albeit in smaller numbers that are generally ignored by western audiences. I’ve written about this, and talked about the problems of negotiating with any or all of the various Taliban factions. It is immensely frustrating to watch, and my heart goes out to the people affected by this each and every day.

The shock and horror of the Peshawar school attack have merited global attention, and all of Pakistan–and so many others–grieve the loss of so many innocent young lives. Amid the grief, I find hope that this brutality may be evidence that the TTP is finally unraveling, that Pakistan’s military may be serious about getting out of the business of distinguishing “bad” and “good” Taliban, and that all governments, to include the U.S., Pakistan, and Afghanistan, can take this as an opportunity to get serious and clear about the chaos that support of any Taliban faction has caused.

The chaos has got to stop. Will the shock of Peshawar be enough?

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