There is now a numbing familiarity to the kind of news that broke on Wednesday morning from Pakistan.
This time, heavily armed militants in suicide vests scaled the walls of a sprawling university campus near Charsadda, a picturesque town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly known as North West Frontier) province near the Afghan border. Gunfire and explosions starting at about 9 am resounded through the dense fog enveloping Bacha Khan University, set idyllically amidst sugar cane fields some 13 km from Charsadda.
The four assailants killed at least 19 students and teachers before themselves being killed by the police and army in a three-hour long gun-battle.
The casualty rate was far lower than the attack on the Army Public School in nearby Peshawar just over a year ago on Dec 16, 2014 in which militants killed some 150 school children and teachers.
The relatively low casualties, pointed out Senator Rubina Khalid of the Pakistan People’s Party, is not a basis for self-congratulation.
“We send our children to school to study, not to be shaheed or martyred,” she said, speaking on Geo TV’s nightly Capital Talk show, hosted by well-known journalist Hamid Mir.
This in fact is a sentiment that many are now voicing: stop glorifying those killed in such attacks as “heroes” and “martyrs”.
After every such murderous assault – and the list is a long one – we hear the same noises, vowing that this will never be allowed to happen again. There have been many apparent “turning points”, even before the APS attack, and before that, the attack on Malala Yousufzai. The list includes attacks on a police academy, naval base, air force base, army cantonment, hotel, mosques, churches, markets, and schools.
But in each case, the national resolve is quickly splintered by the confusion created through disclaimers by various public figures and journalists: “The attackers are not Muslim”, “No Muslim would do this” – and that in fact, it is India which is somehow behind the attack.
Retired brigadier general and former Inter-Services Intelligence station chief in Peshawar Asad Munir rubbished these denials.
In short, today’s militants are ideological descendants of the “mujahideen” or holy warriors spawned by the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency and Pakistan military in the name of Islam to drive the “godless Communists” (Soviet Union) out of Afghanistan.
The Taliban and others that arose from the madrassas that developed the mujahideen have splintered into many factions. However, they share the same world view: anti-democracy, anti-women’s rights, anti-education, anti-homosexuality – all of which they enforce through violence.
Their linkages with Al Qaeda and Daesh, despite differences, are natural.
Hamid Mir in his show cited an Afghanistan number that was used to call the attackers on their cell phones, as well as international reporters. The calls, he said, were made by Umar Mansoor, of the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan Geedar [jackal] group.
He also showed viewers a photograph that Mansoor had sent to reporters, in which five armed, grim-faced males sit against a scenic background of lush green hills and valleys.
The one in the centre is heavily bearded. Two look very young – perhaps even younger than the students at the university they were setting out to attack.
Believed to be the one of the masterminds of the Peshawar school attack of December 2014 that the Taliban had claimed responsibility for, the daily Dawn reported that Mansoor took responsibility for the Bacha Khan University attack on a post on his Facebook page. The page has since been taken down.
Following the Peshawar massacre, the Taliban had released similar photos of the attackers apparently taken before they were dispatched on their deadly mission. This time, however, the Taliban has distanced itself from the attack, terming it “un-Islamic”.
Another similarity between the Peshawar school and Bacha Khan University attacks is that intelligence received prior to both tragedies hinted at the forthcoming attack.
The Army Public School was attacked ostensibly because the Taliban wanted to take revenge against Pakistan’s armed forces for their military offensive against the militants.
A legacy under attack
Bacha Khan University, with some 600 faculty members and 3,000 students from around the country, is a symbol of peace and education – both anathema to the militants.
On the day of the attack, about 600 guests were expected for a poetry recital due to start at 11 am to commemorate the 28th death anniversary of Pashtun nationalist leader and freedom fighter against the British rule, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, after whom the university is named.
Known as “Badshah” (king) or Bacha Khan, he was a devout Muslim – the kind the Taliban would term an apostate – who founded a non-violent red-shirted army of Khudai Khidmatgars (servants of God).
Bacha Khan’s creed of non-violence and friendship with “Mahatma” Gandhi earned him the nickname of the Frontier Gandhi. Initially opposed to the creation of Pakistan, he pledged allegiance to the new country when it was formed in 1947. But subsequent Pakistani governments looked upon him with suspicion and jailed him several times. He died in Peshawar in 1988, while under house arrest.
Bacha Khan University is one of several educational institutes set up by the Awami National Party , the party founded by Ghaffar Khan’s son Wali Khan. The Bacha Khan Medical College and the Bacha Khan Medical Complex in the nearby cities of Mardan and Swabi respectively are part of this endeavour. The Awami National Party is also working on facilitating a Bacha Khan university in Khost, Afghanistan.
Bacha Khan’s message of peace and non-violence resonates with Nobel Laureate Malala Yousufzai, who was “heartbroken” by the brutal attack on students and staff at the Bacha Khan University that she has strongly condemned.
In a statement expressing solidarity “with the families of all the victims and all those who suffer as a result of extremist violence”, she said:
“This brutality must be stopped. The authorities must act to ensure that all schools and universities are safe. I urge all people with peace in their hearts to renew their resolve to stand up to terrorism and ignorance and work together to protect life and learning.
This attack happened on the 28th anniversary of the death of Abdul Ghaffar Khan who was a great freedom fighter, a man of peace. I hope his message of non-violence and harmony will prevail and end intolerance in our society.”
But to achieve this goal, Pakistan must continue with a multi-pronged, unified approach. The National Action Plan developed after the Peshawar attack must be implemented, not just in name.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Choudhry Nisar claimed great success in having tackled terrorism, with many arrests made. The reality on the ground is that many banned organizations continue to operate freely. As young journalist Umer Ali wrote in The Nation:
“The government bans an organization, it emerges with a new name, contests elections and even wins seats. LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba], banned in 2002, changed its name to JuD [Jamat ud Dawah] and is still working freely under the guise of a welfare trust – often along with Pakistan Army in cases of emergency.”
After the militant attack on the Pathankot air base in India that emanated from Pakistani soil, in an effort to mend fences with India, Pakistan announced action against banned Jaish-e-Mohammad. There were reports that the JeM offices had been “sealed” and its leadership taken into “protective custody”. Asked Ali:
“Banned since 2002, the government must answer the simple question: why did it wait for 14 years to take action?”
Analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, who hails from the southern Punjab area where many of these organisations have their bases, also asks this question and points out that there are in fact no “offices” as such to be “sealed”.
Taliban and their like-minded groups have killed over 50,000 civilian and 10,000 armed forces personnel in Pakistan over the past decade. And yet the national unity needed to counter this threat remains elusive. Efforts towards this national unity need to be made now to yield dividends in the future.