Time for tough action against extremists

Peshawar school massacre proves that Pakistan must move beyond fighting talk

Schoolchildren in New Delhi observe a two-minute silence for victims killed in a Taliban attack on a military-run school in Peshawar, yesterday. Altaf Qadri / AP Photo
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School massacre proves that Pakistan must move beyond fighting talk against the Taliban

Peshawar has been burying its dead – 148 people in total, most of them schoolchildren. Pakistan is observing three days of national mourning. Prime minister Nawaz Sharif has reintroduced the death penalty for terrorism related cases and pledged to avenge a “national tragedy unleashed by savages.” On Wednesday, he convened a meeting of all parliamentary parties as a show of solidarity against extremism. Indeed, national unity in the face of the Taliban menace is what it needed. Separately, Pakistan’s army launched air strikes at militants in the Khyber and North Waziristan areas, although it was unclear if this was a direct response to Tuesday’s savage attack on the army-run school. These are all appropriate measures in the aftermath of a violent, targeted assault.

But is this enough? That is the real question as Pakistan confronts the bloodstained consequences of a policy pursued by its intelligence service, army and successive governments for years. Will Pakistan, which has long tolerated and often used militants in pursuit of its own aims in Afghanistan and elsewhere, finally embark on an all-out war against extremism? The Peshawar massacre is proof of the perils of playing with fire, in this case classifying Islamist radical groups into “good” and “bad, according to self-serving short-term interests. When the Pakistani army tried to dismount from that tiger with its August offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in the north-western region, the group took cold-blooded revenge by mowing down the children of armymen. It offered as justification the callous excuse: “The government is targeting our families and females.” This prompted an unusual response from over the border, with the Afghan Taliban condemning as unIslamic the killing of women and children.

The Pakistani government and army must move swiftly and in concert to exploit the national revulsion at the school killings by recognising the enemy within. That is the only way to fight back. There may have never been a better time to do so, given that a shadowy genuinely united front against terrorism appears to be emerging, comprising the new Afghan government, Mr Sharif’s administration, the Pakistani army and the US. Peshawar shows that this is no time for half measures.