Editor’s NOTE: The following op-ed, penned by me, was originally published by NDTV on January 20, 2016. I’m pleased to cross-post the article on my blog from NDTV’s website without any editing. (Ali Salman Alvi)
Pakistan finds itself reeling after yet another terror attack on its soil. Heavily armed militants stormed Bacha Khan University this morning in Charsadda, about 50 kilometers from the city of Peshawar, and opened indiscriminate fire on students and staff members where they had gathered for a poetic symposium to commemorate the 28th death anniversary of renowned Pakhtoon leader and proponent of non-violence Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, popularly known as ‘Bacha Khan’.
Umar Mansoor, a commander in the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistani (TTP) and the mastermind of the attack on the Army Public School Peshawar in December 2014, first claimed the attack. But the official spokesperson for the Pakistani Taliban disowned it. More than 21 people are reported to have been killed and at least 60 others injured during a two-hour rampage; officials fear the casualties will rise. Four terrorists were shot after the security forces launched a remarkable counter-terror operation in the university’s premises in a bid to control the damage.
The investigations into the terror attack are underway, but we must not avert our eyes from the fact that the attack was the result of yet another intelligence failure and a major security lapse, especially when only three days ago, rumors of security threats to educational institutions triggered the closure of schools in the same region.
In many ways, today’s attack was reminiscent of the gruesome December 2014 terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar which left over 140 dead – most of them children. The message behind today’s attack is the same. 13 months ago, they targeted a school being run by the Pakistan Army that is actively combating terrorists and eliminating their hideouts in North Waziristan. Today, they attacked a university named after Bacha Khan, the man who laid down the foundations of the politics of the secular Awami National Party that has rendered a number of sacrifices for standing up against the Taliban. The message given by the terrorists is loud and clear: standing up to them has a price, and more often than not, you have to pay that with your blood.
More than the identity of the outfit that has claimed the attack on Bacha Khan University, the people of Pakistan in general and those at the helm of affairs in the country in particular need to counter the mindset of the terrorists and the ideology they preach in the name of Islam. These terrorists are afraid of education. They are afraid of the power of knowledge. The very same mindset and the very same group targeted Malala Yousafzai in October 2012, attacked the Army Public School in December 2014 and stormed a university today, apart from deadly attacks on polio vaccination teams across the country.
Despite the ongoing operation against the hardcore militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan, the TTP’s ability to strike in the settled areas of the country should be a matter of concern for Pakistan’s civil and military leadership. The rot is surely deep and Pakistan is passing through extraordinary circumstances which demand extraordinary measures. While it is obvious that it’ll take significant amount of time to eliminate terror from Pakistan, the more worrying part is that the state of Pakistan has shown no clear intent or political will to counter the mindset that has been a major hurdle in developing a counter-terrorism narrative in the country.
After the horrific terror attack on Army Public School that jolted Pakistan’s civil and military leadership, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced a comprehensive roadmap to counter terrorism in his 20-point agenda known as National Action Plan.
While the plan looked good on paper, the situation on the ground remains disturbingly awful and unchanged. The plan talked about countering hate speeches and extremist material, choking funding for terrorists and terrorist organizations and dismantling communication networks of terrorist organizations. Point 3 of the plan stressed the commitment to ensuring that no armed militias are allowed to function in Pakistan, while points 10 and 11 talked about the registration and regulation of religious seminaries and a ban on the glorification of terrorism and terrorist organizations through print and electronic media.
Ground realities suggest that little has changed since then – so much so that the incumbent government itself has accepted that the progress on National Action Plan has been unsatisfactory.
There is another aspect of the attack and that directly affects the already fragile and vulnerable relations between Pakistan and India. Hardliners in Pakistan are linking today’s terrorist attack to a statement given by Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar after the Pathankot terror attack in which he said that “Those who harmed us will feel the pain”. Former interior minister of Pakistan Rehman Malik went as far as to blame Indian intelligence agency RAW for this latest attack on Pakistani soil. The two reckless statements mentioned above underscore the need to show restraint and maturity in the face of adversity. The authorities on either side of the border need to realize that they should not play into the hands of the terrorists.
As far as Pakistani authorities are concerned, they need to focus on the security threats to Pakistan posed by militants who not long ago enjoyed state patronage, and show the intent to take on terrorists without making any discrimination.