Pakistan is Still Not Ready to Root Out Terrorism

Peshawar might not be the last massacre on its soil


Peshawar School Attack
Neon Tommy / IWoman / CC BY-SA

If there is anything approaching a silver lining in the horrific slaughter of 132 school children in Peshawar, it is the united outrage in Pakistan against Tehreek-e-Taliban (or the Pakistan Taliban) that perpetrated this gruesome attack. Virtually every newspaper in the country—left, right, and center—demanded that the Pakistani establishment declare a "zero tolerance" policy toward all Islamist terrorists, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Pakistan's largest English-language newspaper, The News, asked Pakistanis to think about what support for Islamist extremists has done to them. "Nothing matters more than ending the militancy and brutality it has brought to our society." Dawn, Pakistan's oldest newspaper, editorialized that military and counterterrorism operations will amount to "little more than firefighting unless there's an attempt to attack the ideological roots of militancy and societal reach of militants." The liberal Daily Times demanded a "chapter-turning decision" that brings a "final end to this terror."

But the most scathing was The Nation, which excoriated Pakistani leaders by name, reserving special scorn for Gen. Raheel Sharif, a bold move given that the terrorists had deliberately targeted an army-run school, and that many of the kids killed at point-blank range came from army families, as did the school principal, who was torched alive. "The country is reaping what it [the army] has sown over decades," the newspaper deplored.

This is absolutely correct. But the problem is that the mindset that sowed this poisonous fruit will make it difficult to root it out. Hence, these newspapers' noble calls are unlikely to be heeded.

Regimes change course only when the cost of maintaining the status quo exceeds the cost of enacting change. This is not to minimize the cost of scores of innocent young lives. But to Pakistan's political leaders, the price of these children's lives is still lower than the toll of a veritable civil war with an intelligence service that has long played footsie with extremist groups it finds geopolitically useful.

Ever since its inception over six decades ago, Pakistan has been obsessed with countering its neighbor, India. Some fear is obviously warranted given that nuclear-armed India is six times bigger in both size and population, and its predominantly Hindu population has no love lost for Pakistan. But Pakistan's fears have taken almost pathological proportions—even though India's secular democracy has done a relatively decent job of keeping its own belligerence in check (even when the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has been in power, although the jury is out on the party's current prime minister, Narendra Modi, who has a track record of tolerating anti-Muslim violence).

Thanks partly to exaggerated fears about India, Pakistan has built its army and its intelligence arm, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), into all-powerful entities that are scarcely answerable to civilian rulers. Indeed, no Pakistani government can survive without their support. The army and ISI know it, and demand free rein over the nation's foreign and defense priorities.

They threw in Pakistan's lot with America during the Cold War not because they appreciated American democracy and freedom, but simply as a counterweight to India's alliance with the Soviet Union. But after the U.S.-backed Afghani guerrillas defeated Russian forces in the 1980s, Pakistan helped the Taliban defeat its rivals and take control rather than allowing Kabul to return to secular monarchical rule, lest it ally with India. Furthermore, although Pakistan denies it, ISI has colluded with the Taliban to train and arm Islamist terrorist groups to conduct a proxy war in Kashmir, the Muslim-dominated border state that Pakistan wants to wrest out of India's control.

This is also why it was vital for ISI to reinstate the Taliban in Afghanistan after NATO forces toppled the group in the wake of 9/11. Even though the Taliban had become a pariah in the world thanks to its retrograde ideology and harboring of al Qaeda, ISI offered it sanctuary, training, camps, expertise, and fundraising advise. "ISI support was critical to the survival and revival of the Taliban after 9/11," notes the Brooking Institute's Bruce Riedel, "just as it was critical to its conquest of Afghanistan in the 1990s."

ISI even allowed a rump group of Pashtun Taliban fighters driven out of Afghanistan by American forces to settle in North Waziristan and open a Pakistani chapter. Since then, however, this group has chafed at the ignominy of having to live under Pakistani rule and wants to impose sharia on the whole province—if not all of Pakistan.

Following multiple terrorist attacks, including two particularly deadly assaults against the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad and Pearl Continental in Peshawar—not to mention the shooting of Malala Yousafazi—the Pakistani army finally launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb, or Operation Sword, in June to bring this noxious outfit under control. The Peshawar school attack was the Pakistan Taliban's answer to that initiative.

Pakistan's instinct will be to mount more such initiatives to avenge the carnage. But this won't buy the country enduring relief so long as extremists continue to receive aid and comfort from their Afghani overlords, who themselves are under ISI's protection. For example, Mullah Omar, the Taliban ringleader to whom all Taliban chapters swear fealty and on whose head America has a multimillion-dollar bounty, is widely believed to be holed up in Quetta or Karachi with ISI's blessing. ISI is also in bed with the Afghanistan Taliban's right-arm, the Haqqani network, which allegedly runs its jihadi operations in Kashmir.

Pakistan can't rid itself of Islamist terrorists without going after their ISI protectors. However, it is hard to see how the country's civilian rulers—who serve at the pleasure of the army and ISI—can undertake such a task and still survive to tell the tale.

The first thing they would have to do is dial down the India threat and turn their back on the jihadi outfits that have terrorized their neighbor, even if that means defying ISI. That they are far from ready to do so became abundantly clear on Thursday morning, when a Pakistani court handed bail to the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attack.

Enduring periodic mass casualties, even of young children, ultimately might be less politically painful to Pakistani rulers than taking on powerful defense and intelligence interests that thrive on playing "good terrorist" and "bad terrorist." Sadly, Peshawar probably isn't the last tragedy of this scale on Pakistani soil.

This column was originally published in The Week. You can find Ms. Dalmia's full Week archive here.