Analysis |

Pakistan School Massacre Is Also a Message to Washington

More attacks resembling the Peshawar siege are expected as the coalition prepares to leave Afghanistan.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Pakistani women mourn a relative who was killed during an attack by Taliban gunmen on a school, December 16, 2014.
Pakistani women mourn a relative who was killed during an attack by Taliban gunmen on a school, December 16, 2014.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The massacre of Pakistani students at the prestigious military school in Peshawar is just one event in the violent and brutal dialogue going on for years between the Pakistani government and the Taliban in Pakistan.

The target, a school where the children of army officers study, was carefully selected and intended to convey a dual message. One, against continued cooperation between the Pakistani army and the United States, and the second, against the Pakistani army, which in the past year has increased its efforts to combat the Taliban. The massacre is also intended to avenge the killing of nine Taliban activists last week by an American UAV bombing, as well as the extradition of Latif Mehsud, considered the organization’s No. 2, to Pakistan.

More than 100 children were killed in the attack, carried out by nine Taliban gunmen, according to a Pakistani military source. The total death toll reached at least 126, with 122 people injured, local officials said, in the worst attack to hit the country in years. All nine assailants were also killed.

Peshawar is a “classic” city for carrying out such a huge attack. As the capital of the district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, on the border with Afghanistan, it is not only the most important commercial and economic center of the district and one of the country’s most densely populated cities, it also hosts tens of thousands of Afghans, among them many activists in the Haqqani network, al-Qaida and tribal militias. This is an area controlled only nominally by the central government in Pakistan, with the tribal chieftains who rely on private militias being the real rulers there.

While Pakistan’s renewed efforts to take control of the border areas have seen local victories over the past year, the porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, along with the military and logistical collaboration between the Taliban of Pakistan and of Afghanistan, have left these border districts areas under the independent control of the Taliban.

Nevertheless, the Taliban of Pakistan, who build themselves on the weak links between local tribal militias, do not always see eye to eye with the Taliban of Afghanistan, which is more centrally controlled, and the two groups have different interests. For example, the Taliban of Afghanistan regard the Pakistani government as their ally after years in which they received Pakistani military support, part of which was siphoned off from U.S. aid to Pakistan. In contrast, the Pakistani Taliban view the Pakistani government, especially the army, as an enemy that must be fought. But when it comes to the fight against foreign forces, Americans and others, the two organizations cooperate closely.

The differences in the attitude of these two groups toward Pakistan have placed the Pakistani government on the horns of a complex dilemma. Support for the Afghan Taliban, which Pakistan sees as a shield against Indian involvement in Afghanistan, has angered the United States, which until a year ago brought about an unprecedented low in ties between the two countries. At the same time, the fact that Pakistan allows American UAVs to attack Taliban targets within its borders has generated sharp criticism and huge opposition among the Pakistani public, of which the Pakistani Taliban takes advantage.

Pakistan has attempted over the past year to hold a political dialogue with the Taliban. However, the talks crashed after the Taliban attacked the airport at Karachi in June, and the military assault against the Taliban that followed the attack.

The need to navigate between American interests and public pressure has turned Pakistan into a “suspect state” in the eyes of the United States, which is no longer sure whether Pakistan is really fighting the Taliban in the most efficient manner. The United States, which since 9/11 has given Pakistan $28.4 billion in aid, each time threatens anew to cut the aid, some $300 million of which per year is for military acquisitions. However, with Pakistan a key country in the war against Al-Qaida and the Taliban, the United States is not likely to make good on this threat.

In the past year, ties between the two countries improved to the point where the Pakistani army’s chief of staff, Raheel Sharif, for the first time in four years paid a long visit to the United States. This two-week visit took place at the same time that the Pentagon released a report stating that Pakistan was sheltering Al-Qaida operatives.

This paradox can be explained by the high-pressure timetable dictating that the United States is to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan by the end of this month; thus the need once again to “embrace” the Pakistani establishment, through which it will be able to wage a long-distance fight against Al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

Another sign of closer ties can be found in the willingness of Pakistan and Afghanistan to cooperate on the military level, which will manifest itself, among other ways, in the training of Afghan army soldiers by Pakistani commanders funded by the United States. Torpedoing this cooperation is now the main goal of the Pakistani and the Afghan Taliban, and the closer the date of international forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, the more attacks can be expected resembling the school massacre. This is a type of action convenient to carry out in the winter when it is difficult, if not impossible, for a regular army to conduct pursuits or battles in the mountainous, snowy border areas.

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