On December 16, 2014, 145 people, including 132 children, were executed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in a terrorist attack on an Army Public School in Peshawar. [The toll is now 150.] When cornered, the seven militants blew themselves up; five inside the school and two outside. Later a TTP spokesperson, Mohd. Omar Khorasani, said that the attack was retribution for the Pakistani government’s counterinsurgency operations in North Waziristan, which had “targeted our [Taliban’s] families and females”.
Operation Zarb-e-Azb is a massive counterinsurgency operation that was launched by the Pakistani Army in June 2014 to wipe out the Taliban from North Waziristan a week after the TTP’s attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, which killed over 36 people including the attackers. It involves 30,000 men, armored battalions, air support and drones. The operation came in the wake of repeated failure of talks between the Taliban and the Pakistan government. With the Pakistan government feeling as if the Taliban was dodging the talks by sending TTP sympathizers and not actual TTP ranks, the airport attack was the last straw. Between June and December, approximately 1,200 reported insurgents have been killed in the region and approximately a million civilians have been displaced.
Fighting for space
To understand the TTP attack in Peshawar, we need to first understand the structure of the TTP. It is an umbrella organization of at least 13 groups started in 2007 by Baitullah Mehsud. Last year, the leadership of the TTP came to Maulana Fazlullah, also called the ‘FM [radio] Mullah’, a man who has violently opposed education for children, most clearly evinced in his instructions for the shooting of Malala Yousafzai. When Fazlullah assumed the TTP’s leadership, four splinter groups emerged (alongside the pre-existing TTP Punjab) — the Ahrar-ul-Hind (February 2014), the TTP South Waziristan (May 2014), the TTP Jamaat-ul Ahrar (August 2014), and the TTP Sajna (May 2014). The groups emerged because of sharp differences on insurgent strategy between Fazlullah and other competing insurgent chiefs within the TTP, including the remaining members of the Mehsud clan.
When there are competing insurgent groups, with very few ideological and operational differences operating in the same piece of territory, things become complicated. Essentially these groups look like similar products. Often, proving your mettle as an insurgent group and establishing dominance means undertaking the most daring, risky attacks and getting a higher death count. It means being as entrepreneurial at violence as possible. So, to understand the Peshawar attack we need to focus on the following factors.
First, as I have already described, competition between insurgent groups for dominance in one piece of territory, leads to higher levels of violence. Memorable (not in a good way) violence of the type undertaken by the TTP serves the purpose of helping the group develop a brand identity, i.e., it is easily distinguishable from other similar looking groups. Having an easily distinguishable identity from a pool of similar groups allows the TTP to have an upper hand while amassing recruits. So, insurgent strategy and ideology helps in “branding” and “banding” for an insurgent group.
Second, we cannot look at the TTP’s actions in isolation. Counterinsurgency, by definition, is based on force as a default strategy. However, when deals with insurgents fail, the state’s tendency to use force becomes more pronounced and in some ways, is seen as more legitimate by state actors. However, counterinsurgency also dislocates entire populations, who, if not adequately resettled and policed, serve as new recruiting grounds for insurgent groups. The counterinsurgency operations in North Waziristan have been swift, sustained and brutal. With ranks of the TTP wiped out and the outfit splintering, the Peshawar attacks need to be seen as the TTP’s way of reasserting military dominance and territorial control; only, they shifted the target. Instead of a hard military target, a soft target was picked. Further, in a strategy calculated to incite the Pakistani military and hit where it hurts them most, families of Army men were targeted.
Third, what is telling is that, overall, the counterinsurgency operations have been effective in terms of putting the TTP out of commission to the extent that they currently find it difficult to attack a hard military target.
Fourth, typically when counterinsurgency operations are on the verge of destroying an insurgent group and are heavily coercive, the insurgent group asks for talks or a ceasefire. A cessation of hostilities allows for both sides to regroup, rearm, recruit, and move men, money and materials around. This is more important for insurgent groups than the state because the state does not immediately need the breathing room as much as the insurgent groups do. There is no indication that the TTP asked for this breathing room or even if it had asked, there is nothing to suggest the Pakistani Army would oblige it.
Role of ideology
When a group becomes intricately bound to its own ideology there is very little wiggle room left for that group strategically. This is because for an insurgent group to have any local credibility, the group’s strategy needs to be commensurate with its ideology. The TTP’s ideology binds it to a regressive ideal, for sure, but it also does not lend itself well to negotiation and pacting as a strategy. To negotiate is to lose face. With previous TTP leaders some talks were possible. However, with Fazlullah, given his track record, this seems unlikely. Fazlullah, who was the leader of the Swat TTP and an immensely successful militant (by standards of militancy), had used a ceasefire period in 2009 to establish legal and coercive control over 59 villages in Swat valley.
His strategy has been simple. Whatever policy the Pakistan government attempts, decry it, stop it, attack it. So, he has, for instance, opposed everything — from women’s education to polio vaccines — by calling these western implants that do not belong in Pakistani society, which must be governed by full sharia. In many ways, if Fazlullah is the one who picked the Army Public School in Peshawar as the target, it falls in line with his thinking. In both India and Pakistan, the Army is one of the few modern institutions where military ranks matter more than entrenched feudal hierarchies. The Army also hangs on to colonial traditions because many regiments were set up during the British Raj. These colonial traditions have in cases become regimental traditions. Finally, the Army runs schools to facilitate personnel transfers without cost to the family. Many civilian schools refuse to take admissions in mid-session. For a serving soldier who is transferred in mid-session, the easiest solution is to shift his child from one Army school to another. Army schools typically impart education in English and insist on modern codes of dress for students. Between the fact that the school was run by the Army and that families of Army personnel were in there, and, the fact that the school by its mere existence was a symbol of a type of education, which is at odds with what the Taliban teaches, the school’s fate was sealed.
The only outcome that can be guaranteed at this point is that counterinsurgency operations will not cease against the TTP, neither will the focus be deflected to other matters. This has been made clear by the Pakistani Army chief, General Raheel Sharif, and by most of the political establishment. If the Pakistan government were to think carefully about this process, alongside coercive counterinsurgency they would also open dialogues with the more approachable and perhaps moderate Taliban splinter groups — those that do not accept Fazlullah as their ‘amir’ or chief and have deviated sufficiently from conventional Taliban ideology to not be constrained if it comes to meaningful dialogue.
(Vasundhara Sirnate is the Chief Coordinator of Research at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy.)
This article first appeared in The Hindu, one of India’s most respected dailies. Click here to go to the original.