Message written in blood shows weakness of Taliban

Published by The Daily Mail (16th December, 2014)

At first staff thought it was just children playing a boisterous game, for as older pupils sat exams on the upper floor a party was being held for younger classes. But then they saw the armed gunmen, the blood and the bodies.

The Taliban murderers picked their target with precision then issued a chilling statement. ‘We selected the army’s school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females. We want them to feel our pain.’

Pakistan has been braced for this kind of bloodthirsty attack. It is the savage response to a military crackdown on the group’s tribal heartlands, which claims to have wiped out hundreds of militants.

This is, after all, a terror group that has made widespread use of suicide bombing, attacked hundreds of schools, massacred teachers, shot a schoolgirl who dared show defiance to them and even killed hundreds of worshippers at mosques and shrines.

Yet it is also a reaction to shifting geopolitics in the region since the election of a new president in Afghanistan, which threatens the Taliban even in its traditional stronghold. Analysts say the sickening slaughter of schoolchildren symbolises its sudden weakness.

Clearly it is designed to send a message written in blood to the military that claims to have cleared the Taliban from much of its regional stronghold in the country.

But it is hard to think of a softer target than a school filled with army children and, for all the horror, may indicate the success of concerted attacks on the long-feared terrorist organisation.

As one expert said, this cruel shift in tactics to such an easy target is designed to make a spectacular statement with the least possible cost for the Taliban.

For years Islamabad resisted attacking the fanatics in North Waziristan, on the north-west frontier with Afghanistan. Both countries blamed their neighbours for harbouring terrorists – with strong justification.

But in recent months Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the militant’s umbrella group that has killed thousands of people in Pakistan, has come under new pressure.

First a US drone strike killed long-haired leader Hakimullah Mehsud late last year – and his successor has struggled to hold together the organisation as it came under fierce attack.

Splits have been evident with some senior figures pledging allegiance to the leader of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, while others recently launched a splinter group of al-Qa’ida in the Indian sub-continent.

Bombing raids were launched from the air on the Taliban’s north-western strongholds in February. These were followed four months later by Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which has since killed more than 1,600 militants.

The recent election of Ashraf Ghani as president of Afghanistan, combined with improved relations between Islamabad and Washington as well as with Kabul, has made life tougher for the terrorists on both sides of the border.

Over the past fortnight there have been a series of counter-insurgency assaults on the Taliban in Afghanistan. On one day this month a US drone killed nine leading militants and a senior commander captured by US troops in Afghanistan was handed over to Islamabad.

‘This is something new – Afghanistan and Pakistan seem to have finally realised they have a common enemy,’ said Gareth Price, senior research fellow with Chatham House think tank. ‘Lashing out at schoolchildren in this way is a sign of weakness.

The TTP made it clear this horrific attack in Peshawar was a response to the military operation and the wiping out of its fighters.

There have been other recent outrages in reaction to the assaults on its heartland. In June, 10 militants armed with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide bomb vests mounted a raid on Karachi airport that left 28 people dead and damaged several planes.

Talat Masood, a retired general and security analyst, said this latest attack was designed to weaken military resolve. ‘They are going for soft targets,’ he said. ‘These attacks have a great psychological impact.’

Although Pakistan has long worried about cracking down on militants, fearing the kind of bloodbaths as seen in Karachi and Peshawar, its operations have led to a substantial fall in the number of terrorist attacks in the country.

Yet Naveed Ahmad, an investigative journalist and security analyst, said the country had been expecting a backlash. ‘These people have been looking for an opportunity and the trouble is our security is so superficial, which makes it easier for them.

‘No-one is ever held accountable for the security failures. So we saw no-one fired after the airport attack, for instance.’

Others queried whether even this attack on a school, killing scores of innocent pupils, will change attitudes.

Two months ago 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai – shot in the head by Taliban militants – became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her campaigning on female education. Yet the honour received scant mention in much of the Pakistan media, criticism from prominent figures in the country and scathing attacks on social media.

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