The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) devastating December 16 attack on a school in Peshawar has shocked the country. The cold blooded execution of over a hundred children, the wanton killing of teachers and the TTP’s subsequent pride in and acceptance of responsibility for the attack has resulted in a wave of disgust and revulsion against the Taliban, their apologists, and all violent Islamist groups.
In Pakistan, acts of such horror are typically, quickly followed by a bizarre phalanx of “media mullahs” who are invited onto political talk shows to air their peculiar world views. These men often justify acts of barbarity or transfer blame to foreigners, with India being a particularly favored villain.
The horrors of December 16 were no exception, in this regard. For instance, soon after the school massacre the extremist cleric Abdul Aziz, the leader of the “Red Mosque” of Islamabad, was contacted for his views. He refused to condemn the atrocity in Peshawar, claiming that both the Pakistani state and the TTP were equally at fault.
Aziz has been consistent in his defense of illegal actions taken by militant groups. In 2007, his heavily armed followers held the capital city, Islamabad, hostage, kidnapping residents and killing security personnel. When all attempts at negotiating with Aziz and his younger brother failed, Pakistani security forces attacked the mosque. In the ensuing battle, Aziz’s even more unbalanced and violent brother Abdul Rashid was killed. Aziz fled the scene of his crime in a burqa, only to be apprehended by a security cordon around the mosque. Since then, Aziz and his supporters have reinterpreted the Red Mosque incident and painted themselves as victims of hooliganism and aggression.
Today, Aziz lives a life of comfort, unmolested and unapologetic for his actions. In recent days, he has supported his female followers, who operate out of the Jamia Hafsa complex attached to the Red Mosque, in their pledge of allegiance to Da’ish, the so called “Islamic State,” currently operating in Syria and Iraq. Aziz has been vociferous in advocating for the criminal activities of Da’ish and his Jamia Hafsa colleagues.
In light of all this, it is incomprehensible why some Pakistani television channels have routinely invited people like Aziz to publicly air their bigoted views, and granted them the veneer of legitimacy they so desperately crave. These behaviors are, however, emblematic of the deep, systemic crisis that has seized Pakistan for some time now and been particularly apparent in recent days.
While the army has reiterated its intention to bomb the TTP even more viciously, Pakistan’s political classes have decided to convene yet another “commission” to investigate the Peshawar attack. According to one observer, the commission is stacked with Taliban sympathizers.
The security problems Pakistan faces are complex and myriad. The TTP is undoubtedly under pressure, as evidenced by the proliferation of opposing TTP splinter groups. Nevertheless, the organization can still cause serious damage. The prospects of a quick solution to the TTP problem are, for this reason, remote.
It remains to be seen whether the army will in fact abandon its favored policy of fighting some terror groups while patronizing and richly rewarding others. It is also far from clear whether Pakistan’s divided political parties will put aside their petty disputes and come together to tackle the myriad issues facing the country.
But, perhaps ordinary Pakistanis hold the key to solving this crisis.
In one positive sign, civil society groups organized a large procession in Islamabad to protest against Aziz and his barbarism. Although the police (who usually stand by as outlawed terror groups spew hate speech) decided to harass protestors, a “FIR” or First Investigative Report was registered at the Aabpara police station against the cleric, demanding an investigation into his conduct.
While the gesture may turn out to be largely symbolic, it demonstrates that revulsion against Aziz and those like him has proliferated. It also shows that, with sustained pressure, politicians and the army may be compelled to finally tackle terrorism not just from a military perspective, but also by revamping the country’s largely ineffectual justice system, which presently allows terrorists to be swiftly released for minor procedural reasons.
Just as important is the full integration of Pakistan’s tribal areas. Currently, these areas, where groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan operate along with the TTP, are not covered by Pakistani federal law. Without regular legal protections, Pakistan’s tribes are at the mercy of both domestic and international intrigues. For its part, the United States has used the ungoverned nature of the area to justify its drone war against terrorists operating in the area.
By exerting meaningful sovereignty over the tribal region, Pakistan will do more than it has in the past to tackle the scourge of terrorism in the country.