By Joanne Stocker, Special to The Declaration, with reporting by Kenneth Lipp
Last Wednesday night members of Philadelphia’s Pakistani community gathered for a silent vigil for the victims of Monday’s bombing at a military academy in Peshawar, Pakistan, which killed almost 150 people, many of them children. The vigil was organized by three young women who said that no organization was officially holding the event, and that attendees were from the Pakistani community in Philly and the extended region who wished to mourn together publicly over Monday’s horror.
“Whoever has committed this must realize that it is a shameless and cruel act that has nothing to do with any religion…[and is] contrary to the teachings of the Koran, Islam, and the prophet Mohammed” said Zaheer Alvi, who said he was student of religion.
“I can say this, this act did not come from Allah, whoever did this, he thought it out of his own logic,” said Alvi.
The Tehreek-e Taliban (TTP, colloquially the Pakistani Taliban) claimed responsibility for the attack at the Army Public School and Degree College in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province capital Peshawar. The schools serves both genders and students from “both military and civilian backgrounds.” Speaking in a statement issued by TPP, Mohammad Omar Khorasani claimed that assailants were told not to kill primary school children and target only the older students. Among the many dead, however, was a five-year old child.
Zehra Wamiq of the Delaware Valley Speakers Bureau , one of the vigil’s three organizers, told the Declaration: “CNN was reporting that the school was attacked because they were educating people, but it was because – well, first because it is a soft target, and second, because of ongoing military operations in the area.”
The Pakistani government has intensified offensives in the region controlled by TPP since the group’s June assault on the Karachi airport, which effectively ended all negotiations between the government and the group, as well as a tenuous ceasefire. PashtunWomenVP estimates almost 51,000 people have been killed in various terrorist attacks in the last ten years.
Writing for Foreign Policy on the day of the attack, Elias Groll documents “a crisis in Pakistani education,” estimating more than 1,000 attacks on schools since 2009 and more than 9 million children who do not receive a primary or secondary education, the second-highest number in the world.
On Thursday, Pakistani government officials said the attack appeared to have been planned in early December in Afghanistan, naming sixteen “top militants” (including Taliban chief Mullah Faxlullah, deputy chief Sheikh Khalid Haqqani, commanders Hafiz Doulat and Qari Saifullah and Mangal Bagh, chief of Lashkar-e Islam. The revelation further strengthened calls for increased cooperation between the Afghan and Pakistani governments, according to Tolo News.
All three women who organized Wednesday’s vigil were adamant that escalating military operations against the Taliban was the wrong move and would surely lead to a higher risk of attacks on civilians. Aisha Khan of 12 Gates Arts urged discussion among regional parties. “Afghanistan and Pakistan must talk…and end the years of reactionary policies. Bombing and killing is not the solution.” The women were critical of the United States’ role in South Asia, saying that US funding of massive recent operations in the Waziristan region has excacerbated tensions and led to even greater violence in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas.
Max Abrahms, a professor of Political Science at Northeastern University, in an emailed response to our request for expert comment on the tragedy’s potential ongoing consequences, said that the attack could damage the Taliban’s support among the local population:
“Within the past several years, political scientists have established that the quality of non-state violence hinges on the target selection. I’ve found that indiscriminate violence against civilians is politically riskier for the perpetrators than more selective violence against government or military forces. When civilians are attacked, militant groups risk losing support from the population, which tends to become more resolved to crush the perpetrators. The Peshawar school attack is an example of such counterproductive violence against civilians. Predictably, the Pakistani public has responded by increasing their commitment to root out the terrorists, while the government has authorized tougher sentences, including the death penalty, for terrorism. In these ways, evidence is piling up that the Taliban erred in going after all those school children.”
“There is no difference between good Taliban and bad Taliban,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sherif said at a press conference Wednesday in Peshawar. Sherif promptly lifted a six-year moratorium on terrorism executions. The ban was briefly lifted in 2013 but reinstated for the sake of international trade agreements. On Friday, the Associated Press reported the execution of two convicted militants. Previously, Pakistan had only executed one person since 2008. There are an estimated 8,000-plus people sentenced to death in the country, one of the highest in the world.
“There are a lot of people using this situation for political purposes,” Iman Sultan, a Temple University student and vigil organizer, said Wednesday night as all three left to rejoin their group. “This is a time for mourning.”