It took the massacre of 137 schoolchildren at the hands of Taliban rebels on Dec. 16 to bring Pakistan to an inflection point regarding its struggles with jihadism. Massive public outrage, along with unprecedented criticism of the government's ambiguous policies toward Islamist insurgents, will push the state to greatly intensify its war against jihadists. This intensification, in turn, will have considerable implications for the wider region, particularly Pakistan's neighbors, Afghanistan and India. A key part of this effort will involve confronting extremists at the societal level, which will aggravate frictions between the conservative and liberal segments of Pakistani society — a struggle that cannot be avoided if the country is to rid itself of the scourge of religious extremism.
After years of waging a vicious insurgency that has left some 50,000 Pakistanis dead since 2001, the country's jihadists appear to have grossly miscalculated. Over the years, the rebels had seen the Pakistani state and society fail to provide a coherent response to increasingly lethal attacks. The Pakistani Taliban thus thought that by attacking children at the Army Public School in Peshawar, they could strike a blow against the country's growing resolve, which has taken the form of the offensive in North Waziristan that has been highly disruptive to the rebels' operational capabilities.
Prior to the attack on the school, the Taliban's only successful attack since the North Waziristan offensive began had been the Nov. 2 suicide bombing near the main border crossing with India that claimed 60 lives. Their attempts to stage several other attacks on sensitive military installations (their preferred target set) had failed, which would explain why they chose a soft target this time around. In sharp contrast to their expectations, the school attack appears to have backfired, generating a massive backlash from Pakistani society.
Such is the magnitude of the situation that the Afghan Taliban movement condemned the attack as un-Islamic. In fact, a rival faction of the Pakistani rebel alliance known as Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, along with some sectarian groups, also denounced the school attack on Thursday. In Islamabad, protesters organized a demonstration outside the infamous Red Mosque (the scene of a fierce, multiday battle between troops and jihadists in 2007), demanding that the mosque's militant cleric, Abdul Aziz — a notorious Taliban supporter — leave the country and join the Islamic State's so-called caliphate.
Demands for the State to Take Action
Most significant is the public ire demanding that the state stop distinguishing between those jihadists who are at war with Pakistan and those focused on Afghanistan or India. Under withering pressure, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — who until as late as June of this year was pursuing negotiations with the Taliban rebel alliance and was forced by the military to approve the North Waziristan offensive — said Thursday that his government would no longer make the distinction between "good" and "bad" Taliban. Meanwhile, the country's two top military commanders, army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif and Inter-Service Intelligence director-general Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, met with Afghan and NATO officials in Kabul to discuss joint cross-border operations targeting Pakistani Taliban rebels who enjoy sanctuary in Afghanistan. Islamabad will reciprocate by cracking down on Afghan Taliban fighters who enjoy havens in Pakistan.
Even prior to the school attack, Islamabad had been making some moves in this direction. The military recently launched airstrikes on the forces of Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a Pakistani warlord in North Waziristan whose men fight in Afghanistan. And a top U.S. military commander said Nov. 6 that the Pakistani offensive in North Waziristan has disrupted the Haqqani wing of the Afghan Taliban movement. It is unclear to what extent and how quickly Pakistan is willing or capable of acting against the Afghan Taliban. However, NATO's departure from Afghanistan has created a worrisome situation for the Pakistanis, leading Islamabad to slowly but steadily increase cooperation with the Afghan government. Public pressure generated by the school attack will only further force the Pakistanis to move down this road.
Pakistan's Internal Incoherence and Constraints
Such cooperation will only partly address the jihadist enterprise in Pakistan, since a major proportion of it is oriented toward India. Since 2003 and, more so, since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Islamabad has largely reined in anti-India militant groups, but they continue to pose problems, for two broad reasons: First, many of the militants who once served as Pakistan's proxies in Indian-administered Kashmir, along with many of their handlers in the Pakistani security establishment, adopted al Qaeda's transnational jihadist worldview and went rogue. Some continued to fight India, while others began to wage war against their one-time patron. Still others engaged in both activities.
Second, a number of the anti-India militants built over the years a large social and financial support network in Pakistan, and they enjoy support from elements of the state's civil and military bureaucracy. The prime example of this is the Jamaat-ud-Dawa movement, the successor to the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was believed to have been involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Jamaat-ud-Dawa has considerable freedom to publicly operate in country. Though it opposes fighting the Pakistani state and is unwilling to disobey Islamabad regarding India, the militant group continues to espouse radical ideology and engage in anti-India activities.
Islamabad faces considerable constraints to clamp down on Jamaat-ud-Dawa and similar organizations. On Thursday, for example, a prime suspect in the Mumbai attacks, Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, was released from jail on bail by an anti-terrorism court. It is perhaps telling that the release occurred on the same day that schools across India observed a moment of silence in solidarity with those gunned down in the Peshawar school attack.
This type of incoherence within the Pakistani state is unlikely to sort itself out in any meaningful way anytime soon. The killing of the children, however, has initiated a new process within Pakistani society. For the first time, those opposed to extremism are beginning to go on the offensive. As it gains steam, this process will lead to an intense struggle between the religious right and their opponents, which will create more problems for the foreseeable future. But such problems are a prerequisite for the country and the region to make progress against religious radicalism.