It is a sad fact of modern life that homicidally inclined extremists feel they have to compete in frightfulness. It is no longer enough to just kill people in twos and threes. Terrorist outrages have to be evermore spectacular in the post-9/11 age. The attack this week on an army-run school in Peshawar, Pakistan, that killed 145, most of them children, takes atrocity to a new level for the Taliban, which is no doubt a reason why it did it.
The Taliban has said that the attack is an act of revenge for army operations in nearby Waziristan. But there are likely other reasons for the massacre.
The Taliban has been deeply impressed with the successes of the Islamic State, which now controls great swaths of territory across Iraq and Syria. Extremists are trying to match the Islamic State’s level of atrocities. Sadly, the very awfulness of its deeds is part of its recruiting appeal.
Another reason for targeting school children is to countermand the attention that this year’s Nobel peace laureate, Malala Yousafzai, has attained on the world stage. The Taliban has never ceased from denouncing the young school girl who was shot and nearly killed by a Taliban gunman in nearby Swat. She has been a powerful spokesperson for education for girls, which the Taliban opposes. Religiously conservative Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border are not in favor of educating girls, and that was one of the motivating factors for opposing the Russians and the Afghan Communists in the 1980, who were in favor of education for girls. Killing school children is a way to get back at Malala and the West that has lionized her.
Pakistan is now in a state of shock and in deep mourning. Successive governments have tried to make peace with the Taliban, but all of them failed, while the Taliban used the respite to consolidate its position. It is now deeply ensconced in every province and city in Pakistan, not just in their strongholds on the wild frontier with Afghanistan, of which Peshawar is the capital. A few years ago, the commanding general of Pakistan forces in the northwest told me that worry about urban terrorist attacks has been one of the reasons Pakistan held its hand in going after the Taliban on the frontier. This year that restraint ended as Pakistan is coming to realize that the Taliban poses a mortal threat.
For years Pakistan has been ambivalent about the Taliban. The army helped organize and carry out the Taliban takeover of most of Afghanistan from the chaos and anarchy that followed the Russian withdrawal. The Pashtuns, who make up the majority of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, live on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The majority of Pashtuns live on the Pakistani side, but they make up the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Pakistan felt it necessary to have a force friendly to Pakistan in control of Afghanistan for fear of being outflanked by India, which Pakistan has long thought of as the real enemy. The US invasion of Afghanistan upset the plan, and led to a policy of helping and sheltering Taliban forces hostile to the American installed government in Afghanistan while combating Taliban hostile to Pakistan.
Perhaps this week’s atrocity will now unite Pakistan’s political parties and its army in the realization that it is the Taliban that poses the real threat to the Pakistani state, not India. It will be a tough task routing the Taliban, but the stakes are very high. Perhaps America, too, now that it is winding down its long war in Afghanistan, will focus on the fact that a Taliban takeover of Pakistan is so much more threatening than anything that can happen in Afghanistan.
Should one of Pakistan’s nuclear bombs fall into the hands of Islamic extremists, the world will become very unsafe indeed. When religious extremists vie for ever more brutal and deadly attacks, there can be no deterrence against using the ultimate trump card in frightfulness and mass murder.H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe.