Who Is Responsible For the Pakistan School Massacre?
The Pakistan Taliban (TTP), the breakaway group that is spearheading an insurgency against the Pakistani state, has proudly admitted to having executed the horrifying atrocity that took the lives of 148 innocent people, including over 130 children.
US officials have been quick to point the finger at Pakistan, noting the role of the notorious "S Wing" of state military intelligence, the ISI, in covertly sponsoring various Taliban factions inside Afghanistan.
And Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, clearly feeling the pressure, has for the first time ever conceded the ISI’s duplicitous strategy and now vows that he will no longer distinguish between "good" and "bad" Taliban, but will bravely fight them all “until the last terrorist is killed.”
Some in Pakistani diaspora communities in the west have a different view. “Mossad did it,” I’ve heard from a surprising number of people. “To make Muslims look bad.” Others blame the CIA, or MI6, or both—indeed, all three.
This sort of pathetic, ignorant denialism is almost as bad as the pathetic official finger-pointing. The sad truth is that none of these actors are free of responsibility for the murky origins of the TTP.
The Double gGme
It is a matter of record that the Pakistani ISI has secretly supported the Afghan Taliban for more than a decade, a matter I have tracked and documented since even before 9/11. Yet from the very inception of this policy, it has been pursued with tacit and selective US support.
In the run-up to 9/11, the idea was to use the Taliban as a proxy on behalf of two US energy companies, Unocal and Enron, to achieve sufficient stability to permit the construction of the Trans-Afghan pipeline project. The Pakistani ISI was the chief conduit of US logistical, financial and military aid to the Taliban during this period.
Yet even after 9/11, despite US intelligence agencies being intimately familiar with ongoing Pakistani ISI support for the Afghan Taliban fighting NATO troops in the country, Pakistan has continued to receive billions of dollars of military aid in the name of counterterrorism.
Yet throughout all this US counter-terrorism assistance, the ISI’s support of the very factions NATO forces are fighting in Afghanistan has gone on, unimpeded. Two declassified US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) reports dated two weeks after 9/11 found that al-Qaeda had been “able to expand under the safe sanctuary extended by Taliban following Pakistan directives” and ISI funding.
In 2006, a leaked US Ministry of Defence report showed that the British government was fully aware of how, “Indirectly Pakistan (through the ISI) has been supporting terrorism and extremism,” including being involved in the 2005 London bombings, and insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Confidential NATO reports and US intelligence assessments circulated to White House officials in 2008 further confirmed ongoing ISI support for Taliban insurgents, tracing the complicity to senior ISI officials including Pakistan’s head of military intelligence, in providing extensive military support to Taliban camps in Balochistan and the "Haqqani" network leading the insurgency around Kabul. Despite these reports being circulated around the highest levels of the White House, senior Obama administration officials went to pains to persuade US Congress to extend military assistance to Pakistan for five years, with no need for assurances that ISI assistance to the Taliban had ended.
So it continued, with US support. In 2010, the massive batch of classified US military cables released via Wikileaks documented how from 2004 to 2010, US military intelligence knew full well that the ISI was supporting a wide range of militant factions in Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan affiliated to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, even while receiving billions of dollars of US counterterrorism assistance. And a NATO intelligence report leaked in 2012 similarly showed that the ISI was directly sponsoring the Taliban, providing them safe havens, and even manipulating fighters and arresting only those believed to be uncooperative with ISI orders.
So if it is accurate to accuse Pakistan of playing a double game in the war on terror, what about the United States? The US Congressional Research Service last year pointed out that after 9/11, “the United States has viewed Pakistan as a key ally, especially in the context of counterterrorism and Afghan and regional stability. Pakistan has been among the leading recipients of US foreign assistance both historically and in recent years.”
This year, Pakistan received $1.2 billion in US economic and security aid. Next year, while the civilian portion of aid is being slashed over concerns about misuse of funds, the US will still provide a total of around $1 billion. The military portion of this will help the Pakistan military “to conduct counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism (CT) operations against militants and also encourage continued US-Pakistan military-to-military engagement.”
US military aid in the name of counterterrorism assistance has directly supported the ISI even while it has covertly sponsored the insurgency in Afghanistan. Why?
In 2009, I obtained a confidential report commissioned by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which provided a shocking explanation for this seemingly contradictory policy. The report, authored by respected defense consultant Ola Tunander, who had previously contributed to a high-level Danish government inquiry into US covert operations during the Cold War, concluded that US strategy in AfPak is to “support both sides in the conflict” so as to “calibrate the level of violence,” ironically to prolong, not end, regional conflicts. This counterintuitive strategy, the report argued, appears to be motivated by a wider geopolitical objective of maintaining global support for US interventionism to maintain regional security. By fanning the flames of war in AfPak, US forces are able to “increase and decrease the military temperature and calibrate the level of violence” with a view to permanently “mobilize other governments in support of US global policy.”
While pundits are now claiming that the TTP, which broke away from the Afghan Taliban to begin targeting the Pakistani state, is the avowed enemy of the ISI, the situation remains complicated. The TTP still maintains relations with its Afghan counterpart for some operations, members of which often flock to the TTP. And in 2009, an Independent on Sunday investigation reported that despite having burned down 200 girls’ schools and conducted 165 bomb attacks against Pakistani security forces, local politicians fleeing the attacks claimed that “elements of the military and the militants appear to be acting together… The suspicion of collusion, said a local government official in the largest town, Mingora, is based on the proximity of army and Taliban checkposts, each ‘a mile away from the other.’”
Pakistani investigative journalist Amir Mir noted that far from being staffed by mullahs, the TTP’s shura councils are filled with former Pakistani military and intelligence officials. The “large number of ex-servicemen, including retired commissioned officers, as its members,” raised disturbing questions about the extent to which disgruntled extremists inside the ISI have been using the movement to impose their brutal Islamist ideology not just in northwest Pakistan, but within the Pakistani state itself.
Yet as TTP violence has escalated, the Pakistani army has accelerated local military operations in response, just as Obama has accelerated indiscriminate drone strikes across the region. Both these approaches have tended to target not terrorists, but civilians. According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, Pakistani security forces have conducted major offensives in the northwest Swat Valley and neighbouring areas, killing “civilians with mortars, direct fire, and with bombs... In some years, it appears that Pakistani security forces were responsible for the majority of civilian killings,” as opposed to the TTP, which is clearly brutal enough.
While the TTP’s latest wanton massacre of school children has captured public attention, the media has remained essentially silent on the Pakistani military’s slaughter of up to 100-plus civilians through the first half of this year. No one knows the true scale of the casualties, but the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, analyzing public record news reports (which themselves are conservative due to being based on official government claims), found that the Pakistani airstrikes killed up to 540 people, and that as many as 112 of these could have been civilians. Not a peep of condemnation from either the mainstream media, or Pakistani diasporas in the west.
The CIA’s drone strikes are equally counterproductive. A secret CIA Directorate of Intelligence report just released via Wikileaks, reviewing the record of drone strikes and counterinsurgency operations over the last decades, admits that these “may increase support for the insurgents, particularly if these strikes enhance insurgent leaders’ lore, if non-combatants are killed in the attacks, if legitimate or semi-legitimate politicians aligned with the insurgents are targeted, or if the government is already seen as overly repressive or violent.”
Militarization Is No Solution
The rise of the TTP, which appears in some ways even more extreme than its Afghan counterpart, is a direct result of the massive, indiscriminate violence deployed by both the US and Pakistan in the region, which feeds the grievances driving locals into the TTP’s ranks. Denying that this violence radicalizes people on the ground is futile. The fact is that the TTP was spawned as an ultra-extreme reaction to the ongoing militarized approach to the region, which itself has slaughtered thousands of civilians.
Yet the frankly disgusting double-game of the US and Pakistani governments in the violence does not absolve the Taliban and its offshoots from their own responsibility for mass murder. The twisted ideology they use to justify their terrorist attacks against civilians, and children no less, must be countered and de-legitimized.
But equally, the rampant expansion of this ideology in areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan has been enabled by the comprehensive breakdown of local institutions and basic economic infrastructure, where alienation and resentment find their outlets through a violent extremism fed by a fatal cocktail of covert foreign finance and selective ISI sponsorship. The short-sighted obsession with military solutions coming from both the US and Pakistani establishments, in this context, merely throws fuel on the fire. Who will counter the entrenched ideologies behind these failed military policies?
In theory, there is a way out. The US must wind-down its self-serving obsession with military aid to Pakistan, much of which is being used to finance the very enemies we are supposedly fighting. Instead of providing billions of dollars of "counterterrorism" focused aid to a hopelessly corrupt government, such billions could be used in coordination with the state to empower genuine grassroots networks like the Rural Support Programs and others with a proven track record in enfranchising communities in self-development and poverty alleviation. Only by empowering the Pakistani people can the country hope to begin moving toward a genuine democracy based on a vibrant and engaged civil society.
From here, we may begin to see Pakistanis themselves further developing their own indigenous conceptions of Islam, drawing on the well-established Pakistani spiritual-cultural traditions of peace and inclusiveness represented in the musical movements of eastern classical, folk, qawwali, bhangra, Sufi and contemporary hip hop, rock and pop, and represented by nationally acclaimed cultural icons like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Junoon, among countless others. Such Pakistani cultural icons demonstrate that truly populist approaches to Islam and spirituality are not regressive, but progressive. The militant madrassas preaching exclusionary violence and totalitarian politics in the name of Islam are being propped up not by local traditions, but by vast inputs of foreign finance exporting an alien ideology over decades from the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia.
And there is a role in this for diaspora communities to mobilize their wealth, expertise and resources to help build the long-term capacity of Pakistani communities to resist and counter the alien ideologies represented by movements like the Taliban, but the focus must be on crafting positive visions for the future, through meaningful institution-building. More than that, diaspora communities, indeed western citizens in general, need to recognize their fundamental responsibility to engage critically and relentlessly to pressure western government institutions and hold them accountable for failed foreign policies pursued in our name that are aggravating the AfPak quagmire.
Extremists are gleefully filling a vacuum of despair cultivated by ruthless domestic corruption and callous international geopolitics. It is never too late to begin cultivating the seeds of hope.