“I AM not sure if Pakistan was created in the name of religion, but it is surely being destroyed in the name of religion.” So wrote a distraught former army officer on December 16th, as a terrorist attack, awful even by Pakistan’s grim standards, unfolded in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the north-west of the country, not far from the border with Afghanistan. Nine members of the Pakistani Taliban, speaking with the local Pashtu accent and dressed in the uniforms of the local paramilitary force, came from a graveyard and over the wall of a large, army-run school. They then moved about, killing children and teachers with guns and grenades. Three or four attackers are said to have blown themselves up.
At the latest count 141 people have died, 132 of them children. Survivors told harrowing stories of children shot as they tried to duck behind desks and chairs. Some were reportedly killed after gunmen interrupted a first-aid training session in the school hall; others fell in the playground. Eyewitnesses spoke of children lined up and murdered. So many injured arrived at the local hospital that it ran out of blood.
Nearly nine hours after the start of the assault, when by now it was dark, soldiers killed the last gunman. The country’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, rushed to Peshawar and spoke of both pain and resolve. “Such attacks are expected in the wake of a war, and the country should not lose its strength”, he said. The war he was referring to is Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which the army launched in the summer to clear the nearby tribal region of North Waziristan of Pakistani Taliban bases. On the evening of the outrage, ten air strikes were ordered in areas close to Peshawar, presumably on Taliban targets. Mr Sharif called an all-party meeting for December 17th, seeking to unite political parties behind a more forceful fight against the terrorists who have torn the country apart.
The Pakistani Taliban quickly admitted responsibility for the attack. Whether intended as a grotesque gesture of compassion or not, they claimed to have been communicating with the gunmen in the school, ordering them to kill only older children. The spokesman said that since “the army targets our families, we want them to feel our pain”. Revenge is clearly part of the motivation. Khalid Aziz, a former chief secretary of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, notes that tribal Pushtuns, which the assailants appear to have been, have endured years of bombing, displacement and army attacks. He now expects punitive attacks by Pakistan’s army, and as a result “we are going to have a never-ending war”.
The Taliban have a brutal history of targeting the country’s pupils. In the four years to 2013, when their writ ran large, they destroyed over 1,000 schools and colleges in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Two years ago they shot a schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai, in the head as she was riding home on a school bus. She survived, going on to collect the Nobel peace prize on December 10th. Ahmed Rashid, an expert on the Taliban, says the massacre in Peshawar was “symbolic of hatred for everything that Malala stands for”. As an attack on children of army officers, it was also intended to demoralise officers serving in North Waziristan.
An umbrella group more formally known as Tehreek-e-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban looks dangerous and desperate. Squeezed by the army, fractured into squabbling parts and without territory, it is striking mostly at civilians. In November a suicide bomber killed 60 local tourists leaving a daily ceremony on the border with India in Wagah in Punjab. Taliban leaders may also worry that Sunni extremists are turning to favour a rival outfit recruiting in Pakistan, an offshoot of the Islamic State (IS). Kamran Shafi, a retired army officer, says he fears the Taliban will increasingly mimic the savagery of IS in an effort to maintain its appeal among militants. But he also calls the latest attack a “seminal event”, after which most Pakistanis, disgusted with extremism, will unite at last to oppose the Taliban.
For now, at least, it may not turn out to be a wholly vain hope. The immediate behaviour of one politician, Imran Khan, was telling. He is a cricketer turned religious conservative who has been set on ousting the elected Mr Sharif. He draws electoral support from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where his party rules, and his policy to date was never to criticise the Taliban. His position, dressed up as principle, was based partly on a calculation that a sizeable number of Pakistanis still think of the Taliban and other extremist groups as pious. Yet after the Pakistani Taliban murdered so many innocents, even Mr Khan was moved to condemn “this inhuman act of utter barbarism”. He promised to join Mr Sharif’s all-party meeting. Only if the political establishment is disunited can the barbarity more easily continue.