Seven armed militants attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar on Tuesday. They jumped a wall, and systematically shot at students – children – in classroom after classroom. The current death toll is at 148, but the numbers continue to rise.
A spokesperson for the Pakistani Taliban called in gleefully once the attack had begun. He said it was in response to the military’s continuing operation against militants in North Waziristan. “We selected the army’s school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females,” said Taliban spokesman Muhammad Umar Khorasani. “We want them to feel the pain.”
The children’s parents and the military are feeling the pain, so is the nation, and so are other nations, because the assault on people’s collective conscience by the mass murder of children is not confined to institutions or nations.
But no amount of pain caused can mitigate the damage that the Taliban has done to itself. This attack ensures that it will not survive very long.
Making a statement
The Taliban wanted to make a statement. It has been suffering heavy blows at the hands of Pakistani military in North Waziristan. The unity of the Taliban coalition has faltered; militants have left en masse and formed different factions. Its leader Mullah Fazlullah, ensconced in Afghanistan, has struggled to keep order and maintain leadership. Unwittingly, the Taliban’s responsible for Malala Yousufzai to become the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner.
They needed a signature attack, one that could again put fear into the hearts of Pakistanis and the military. What better than a school, they must have thought. Schools tend to be poorly defended, and killing children or holding them hostage is easy, and attention-grabbing. An attack could also be a resounding response to the media gushing over Malala. So yes, scores of children murdered, the country horrified. Mission accomplished.
Except that the Taliban have just taken on the unenviable task of explaining how murdering scores of innocent children is a good thing for Islam. No one, no one, will support the Taliban after this. The attack was even condemned by Hafiz Saeed, whose Jama’at-ud-Da’wah is the subject of United Nation’s sanctions. Hardline mullahs may have twisted and contorted Islam to endorse blasphemy laws, child marriages and jihad against America and India, but even they will have a tough time arguing that this attack somehow fulfills their purpose. They could perhaps argue this was an Indian or American conspiracy, but that argument is also slowly losing credibility, not least by the Taliban’s own desperate attempts to claim this attack.
Support will ebb
On a strategic level, it is very difficult to sustain an insurgency without public support, which will inevitably be withdrawn after a massacre like this. Safe havens will be denied to them; donations will stop; there will be desertions; recruitment will slow; informants will increase in number; and the Pakistani military will be emboldened, assured in the rightness of its cause, safe in the knowledge that the public is behind them.
This has happened before. On the first day of September a little over ten years ago, a group of militants seized School Number One, and with it, almost 800 children in a small town called Beslan, located in Russia’s Caucasus region. Three days later, 186 of those children were dead, and along with it, any moral voice that Chechen rebels had in their fight for freedom. The Russian government got the support to take drastic, violent measures against the insurgency; Chechnya’s quest for independence was gutted; the violence petered out.
After this attack, few can continue to empathise with the Taliban’s cause – though for the life of me I can’t imagine what it could be.
This post first appeared on Scroll.