When terrorists killed 160 teachers and children at a Peshawar school last December, a burst of commentary suggested that Pakistan would now change its ambivalence about Islamist extremism. Two months later, it seems that Pakistan's government and military are back to business as usual. A terrorist attack on a private school in Karachi on Feb. 3 went virtually unnoticed. Admittedly, there were no fatalities in the Karachi attack. But the terrorists did lob a bomb and sent out a warning letter about attacking more schools if the government did not cease the executions of convicted terrorists on death row.
The terrorists are clearly serious about continuing and even expanding their war. But the authorities' response is far from serious.
For almost three decades, successive Pakistani governments have seen Islamist terrorists as assets for regional influence. As the terrorists turned inward, attacking Pakistanis and not just Americans in Afghanistan or Indians in disputed Kashmir, Pakistan started making distinctions among the terrorists. Those attacking abroad and adding to Pakistan's regional clout were "good Taliban" while those fighting Pakistanis were deemed "bad Taliban."
Pakistan's liberals, as well as its friends abroad, pointed out the critical flaw in this policy. The "good Taliban" often protected and helped the "bad Taliban." Several thousand Pakistanis have died in terrorist attacks inside the country as a result of the collaboration between "good Taliban" and "bad Taliban." Targets have included military bases, army headquarters and intelligence service offices. Major political figures have been killed and members of religious minorities, as well as the large Shia Muslim community, massacred.
The Peshawar school attack was supposed to be a turning point. The military, which had already started an operation to clear the country's northwest tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan of terrorist safe havens, promised to expand its fight. The government promised not to make distinctions among terrorist groups. A moratorium on the death penalty was ended and hangings of convicted terrorists on death row began amid public pressure. Two convicted terrorists were hanged in Karachi at dawn on the day the terrorists threw their warning bomb at a local school.
The terror, however, continues and is spreading to various cities of the country. The federal and provincial governments still seem clueless about a comprehensive strategy to deal with the terrorists. For example, schools have been asked to arrange their own security. The provincial government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (where the Peshawar massacre took place) decided to arm school teachers, as if teachers with guns in classrooms would make children more secure.
The refusal to take the threat seriously is partly rooted in politics. The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government is run by the party of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who has often shown sympathy and supported their narrative of a war between Muslims and the West. While campaigning in the 2013 election, Khan demanded "political space" and offices for Taliban in major cities of Pakistan, shocking the country's embattled liberals.
Imran Khan's campaign slogans of "Change" and for building a "New Pakistan" never attracted the ire of the Taliban. The Taliban violently interfered with the 2013 election campaign of liberal parties in Pakistan, but Imran Khan's PTI had a free run. Activists and senior leaders of liberal political forces were killed by terrorists during the campaign, but Khan's PTI and other right wing parties faced no such threat.
Khan was busy organizing street protests against the federal government headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (on grounds that the 2013 election poll was rigged) when the Taliban attacked the Army Public School in his province. The incident forced him to stop the protests, but he has yet to take the terrorist threat seriously. Hence the dangerous symbolic gesture of providing guns to school teachers instead of identifying and arresting Taliban masterminds.
Under pressure by the military in the northwest, the Taliban and other nominally banned organizations are regrouping in the southern port city of Karachi. The city is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious cauldron of 20 million people without local government. It has become a battleground for sectarian conflict and reports suggest the city is surrounded by Taliban groups. Since 2008, the province is run by the Pakistan Peoples Party of former President Asif Zardari. In 2013, the provincial government in Sindh, which includes Karachi, launched a paramilitary operation ostensibly against "killers and criminals" of the metropolis. But somehow that operation has targeted the party's opponents more than hardcore terrorists. The Taliban still remain able to threaten schools in the city.
Pakistan's leaders have wasted enough time in political squabbles and dithering while the Taliban slowly take over their cities. The country still faces the questions it did before the brutal murder of schoolchildren in Peshawar on Dec. 16: Will its military establishment really give up on "good Taliban" who advance strategic objectives across the border? Will the politicians stop supporting organizations banned by law but still operating openly? Will preaching hate against other religions or neighboring countries stop? Will Pakistan go beyond just condemning terrorist violence when it occurs instead of preventing it?