In the late morning on 16 December 2014, a group of Taliban gunmen dressed in military uniforms entered the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan. After killing three security guards, they began to fire indiscriminately and throw hand bombs. Ultimately, 144 people died, the vast majority school children. The horror of that day is almost unimaginable. Most victims were shot at close range. The youngest, Khaula Bibi, was six. It was her first day. In the auditorium, three year groups were watching a first aid video. The terrorists shot blindly into the crowds. Many died; survivors remain severely traumatised. Around 10 staff members – including the principal – were killed too. Several teachers died trying to protect their students.
Peshawar, situated in Pakistan’s restive north-western province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), has long been wracked by terrorist violence. It is located close to the Afghanistan border and the tribal border region where the Pakistani military is fighting terrorist groups. The Taliban said the school massacre was retaliation for this army offensive. In the year that has passed since this brutal attack, the country has changed. On government orders, schools across the country beefed up security, building higher walls topped with barbed wire and employing more guards. Teachers in KPK were given firearms training by police.
It is no secret that for years, Pakistan has struggled to contain its domestic terrorism problem. Around 40,000 lives have been lost to terrorist violence since 2001 but the state has thus far failed to take decisive, comprehensive action, hindered by its own duplicity. Elements of the security services have strong links with militant groups which it uses as proxies in geopolitical struggles against Afghanistan and India, while successive civilian governments have been weak, hamstrung by the dominance of the military.
Yet the public outcry after the Peshawar attack last year prompted the government to ramp up its anti-terrorism operations. The army intensified air and ground operations against militant strongholds in the tribal areas. It claims that 3,400 terrorists have been killed and over 800 hideouts destroyed. Terrorism in Pakistan is not geographically contained, and simultaneously, security forces conducted targeted operations in the big cities. The government established military courts to expedite terrorism cases: civilian courts are notoriously slow and vulnerable to corruption and intimidation. Analysts agree that the frequency of terror attacks across the country is significantly reduced.
But at what cost? I was in Karachi earlier this year, a major city that has in recent years become an urban centre for militants. Police spoke openly of extrajudicial killings: in the face of a weak and ineffective justice system, they see it as the quickest and most efficient way to tackle terrorism. The logic is clear, but it raises serious questions about human rights and due process – and there is no doubt that sometimes they get the wrong people. After the massacre in Peshawar, the government lifted a six year moratorium on the death penalty. This was initially supposed to apply only to terrorism cases, but was soon expanded to include all death row convicts. Since then, Pakistan has executed 310 people, making the country the third largest executor in the world after China and Iran. There are more than 7,000 people on death row, many of whom claim they did not receive a fair trial. Just the day before the anniversary of the Peshawar attack, eight prisoners were executed. Numerous cases have sparked international outrage, including that of a paraplegic prisoner whose execution was delayed last month, and a man hanged in September, arrested when he was a child.
Many people in Pakistan agree that an extreme situation calls for an extreme response: though some of the methods and knock-on effects might be dubious, it is indisputably positive that the steady stream of terror attacks is reduced, that the bloodshed be stemmed. In Peshawar, the families of those killed and the survivors of the attack are still grieving, trying to work a way through their trauma. Speaking to the media, different parents said that one scant comfort is that the loss of their children has turned the tide against terrorist violence.
Analysts are urging the government to avoid complacency in the fight against militancy, pointing out that the military offensive must be matched by better policing and intelligence to eliminate networks across the country, and accompanied by longer term strategies to reduce the appeal of terrorist violence – such as improved education and regulation of the madrasa networks. As Peshawar grieves today, Pakistan is agreed that it has lost too many already.