After Peshawar school massacre, watch for the gloves to come off

Published December 17, 2014
Volunteers move the coffin of a student from a hospital following an attack by Taliban gunmen on a school in Peshawar on December 16, 2014. — AFP
Volunteers move the coffin of a student from a hospital following an attack by Taliban gunmen on a school in Peshawar on December 16, 2014. — AFP

ISLAMABAD: With the massacre of more than 130 school children by Taliban gunmen, pressure has mounted on politicians and generals to act against the internal threat of terrorism.

“There have been national leaders who been apologetic about the Taliban,” said Sherry Rehman, a former envoy to Washington and prominent opposition politician. “People will have to stop equivocating and come together in the face of national tragedy.”

Outrage over the killing of so many children is likely to seriously erode sympathy for militants in a country where many people have long been suspicious of the US-led “war on terror”.

The devastating attack could spur the army to intensify an offensive it launched this year on havens in mountains along the Afghan border. Army chief Raheel Sharif has already signaled that retaliation would follow.

“The Taliban may be trying to slacken the resolve of the military by suggesting that there could be a tremendous human costs to the military offensive and create public pressure on the military to back off from this offensive,” said Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

“But it may actually ricochet on them,” said Nasr, formerly a State Department adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakistan's Taliban, whose nominal unity has frayed this year with the emergence of competing factions, are distinct from the Afghan Taliban. But the groups are linked, and share the goals of toppling their respective governments and setting up an Islamist state across the region.

Pressure on government

Widening the offensive against the Taliban could include “hot pursuit” by the military across the porous border into Afghanistan, where many Pakistani militants hide. That could put at risk a recent rapprochement between Islamabad and Kabul.

“They have been asking the Afghan government to do something about this for a very long time ... Pakistan may be left with no other option — the brutality of the attack demands a response,” said Saifullah Mehsud, head of the Fata Research Center in Islamabad, referring to the Peshawar carnage.

Despite the risks, public outrage means the army now has a freer hand to go after the Taliban, entrenching its dominance over a government that pursued fruitless peace talks with the militants and offered only half-hearted support for a military offensive.

The civilian government is already on a backfoot, weakened by months of street demonstrations led by opposition leaders calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Now, it will come under pressure to fall in line with the military.

“Pakistan's political leadership needs to make a clear choice to fight the Taliban decisively, not with half measures,” said Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA and White House counter-terrorism official, now the Brookings Institution think-tank.

“The burden is on Prime Minister Sharif to show he can unite the country to defend its children,” he said.

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