February 26, 2020

What Pakistan wants: its people or terrorists

Museum of death

Rows and rows of men stood in straight lines, hands folded in front of their chests, offering a Namaz-e-Janaza (prayer before burial) on Wednesday.  Some held their chests tighter as if to push back something that wanted to burst out; a howl, or a murmur or an injured heart. Some pretended to be strong and stood erect, ignoring the sound of those who wept through the prayers. Peshawar became a city of small coffins, too heavy to be buried.

The school walls were numb with thousands of bullet marks, and blood sprayed across. ‘These used to be freshly painted walls,’ a military officer showing me around said. The teachers' office was black like charcoal. One teacher was set on fire as she tried to stop militants from hurting the children, a student Ahmed who witnessed and survived his injuries at the Lady Reading Hospital said. ‘Blood dripped from her body, as her body was enflamed,’ he said. He said the militants also tried to slit throats of children. The principle of the school was shot and her throat was slit.

[12-year-old survivor: 'I witnessed the Peshawar massacre']

In the auditorium where most of the children were killed, broken chairs were strewn across the floor, slippery with blood. Books were wet in blood. School bags red with blood. Pencils boxes, broken eyeglasses and school shoes had been tossed around; a sight that preserved scenes from the assault. In one corner, there was a large dirty cloth with a heap of body parts; tiny fingers, portion of a palm, a small foot and some parts unrecognizable.

The military officer, who was helping a select group of journalists tour this place, broke into tears and said, “we have failed our children.” Too little, too late, I thought and said, “yes you have.”

Taliban released a statement saying they attacked Army Public School because these children were to grow up to become soldiers in Pak Military. The fact is although the Army Public School chain – with many branches across the country – is run by the military, it works like a private school. Many of its students are not children of military officials, but doctors, engineers, journalists, laborers and daily wage workers. They come from all kinds of backgrounds and aspire to all kinds of careers ahead of their school years.

One survivor, Ahsan Ali, 14 year old said he wanted to be an astronaut. He was shot in the leg and shoulder. After three bullets and a lot of bleeding, he lost consciousness, but he recalls the last scenes before that. “My friends and I hid behind the door, but they saw us, grabbed us by our arms and threw us on the ground. Then started shooting,” he said all his friends died, and being the only one saved among his friends, he has a renewed purpose in life. “I will take revenge from the Taliban. I will murder them, like they murdered my friends.”

Last week after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, when Malala Yusufzai saw her blood stained uniform again displayed at Oslo's Nobel Peace Centre, she broke into tears. There are more than 130 such uniforms stained with blood now. But their story is different from Malala's. Many mothers in Peshawar told me their children are too afraid to go to school. ‘Mama please don’t ask us to go to school,’ they say. The fear among younger children and anger among the teenage boys may be temporary, but the trauma has transformed their minds. Malala's campaign for child education has bigger challenges in countries where children are used as weapons of war. 

Pakistan’s inexcusable security failure

Their beards, long thick curls are easily identifiable in a city like Peshawar. No one can pull off that appearance without turning heads. They came with heavy weapons and suicide vests, at an un-busy hour. It isn’t very difficult to spot terrorists looking like that in a city that has strict security check point at every corner, including the neighborhoods.

One of my friends who lives in the Cantonment area has to present his National ID card at a security point every day when he goes home. They know his face, his name, his car number, but still ask his identification every day.

These efficient check posts did not notice large men with appearances uniquely like that of the Taliban when eight of them walked down the street from their vehicle to the school, where they climbed the walls, shot the guards and broke in.

One excuse for this security overlaps the state Military presented was that the militants had set fire to their vehicle before entering school, to distract security personnel nearby.

That excuse shows sheer lack of efficiency. Pakistan has no dearth of experience in facing sudden, large-scale attacks in unexpected locations, and the military soldiers took about 7.5 hours to handle half a dozen militants.

On the day of 148 funerals – mostly for children ages 6 to 17 – Pakistan’s PM lead an All party conference bringing together political players across the board, including his staunch opponent Imran Khan. Khan, who dramatically rose to popularity in Pakistan, is said to be under the wing of the country’s military and has spent several months bringing hundreds of thousands of supporters to the streets protesting to oust Sharif for corruption. Since their coming together on one table seemed unlikely only days ago, this meeting was taken optimistically by many Pakistanis who are frustrated with political instability in the country. 

Unfortunately the meeting did not produce much, except a plan to form a counter-terrorism team. Many such teams have been formed before, during many such debilitating times, and none have been effective. Such horrific attacks require quick remedies not tedious commissions or brainstorming sessions that in the past have proven to waste time. Despite the fact that the prime minister said he will make no distinction between good, and bad Taliban, he did not present any plan to deal with all the banned terrorist groups the state has been harboring for more than a decade. It did not call out on militant groups like LeT, JuD, LeJ, JeM, SSP and ASWJ, which are responsible for anti-India sentiment and sectarian violence of massive scale. That was supposed to be the first and foremost step. Of course, it’s not easy to kill your own creation, but Pakistan needs to choose its friends and enemies.

As all of India mourned with Pakistan, from Indian Prime Minister Modi sharing his condolences, to India’s school children who observed two minutes of silence during school assemblies, to Bollywood celebrities who went on social media calling out on Taliban brutality in bold tweets and letters, a Pakistani court granted bail to Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the man accused of masterminding the most brutal attack on India in Mumbai, in 2008, that killed 166 people. It’s a gross kind of response from Pakistan.

Later, television channels that are often accused of biasses towards military interest ran back to back panel discussions, twisting facts to accuse India, Israel and the U.S. for sponsoring terrorism in Pakistan. One TV anchor, Mubashir Lucman, displayed an image of a New York Times correspondent Adam B. Ellick, calling him an American agent and one of the terrorists in the Peshawar school attack. These kind of conspiracy theories have emerged from every horrific incident in Pakistan, and they efficaciously fuel confusion among the masses, dividing the country between pro Taliban and anti Taliban sentiment. Weakening their hearts and minds to see with clarity and keep them from uniting against terrorism.

To question the ills, one needs a will

Pakistan, in it’s thick and thin, has proven to be a terrorism apologist state. Politicians do it for politics and the military does it to maintain their strategic assets. What the Pakistani military needs to be asked is why are these strategic assets needed? If India is a threat, is Pakistan's military so weak that it cannot handle the threat on its own? With a budget of $6.98 billion in a crumbling economy, where common man suffers sparing a piece of his bread, a portion of his shelter to make a contribution to the military, what kind of security does the military give back to its people? Why does a nuclear state need to harbor terrorists and proxies as strategic assets? Can Pakistan as a state justify its failures?

Pakistani politicians, military and public administration has successfully been able to dissolve public anger and has dissipated important questions, by making sentimental statements, blaming the US, blaming India, blaming Israel, blaming the ‘bad Taliban’, playing as apologists for either the ‘good Taliban’ or the good militants.

Pakistani military claims to have killed scores of terrorists in the recent operation called Zarb-e-Azb, has released no names or identification of these terrorists. This military operation has not worked, just like other military operations after which militants in the country have always reemerged from a new place with new capacities to disrupt the state. Two major attacks including Karachi Airport attach and the Peshawar school attack both after the operation in Waziristan are the proof.

On Thursday, Pakistani Taliban – the group that took credit for the massacre – released a statement saying they will target more children and continue to attack all civilian in Pakistan. Ofcourse they will. It’s easy for them in a country where the state has yet not decided whether it wants its people or its terrorists.