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Some thoughts on the horrific Peshawar attack

Some thoughts on the horrific Peshawar attack

1. In the overall context of the state’s war against the Taliban and its affiliates, this has been probably the best year since 2007. Fewer civilians are dying in Pakistan in terrorist attacks today than in the last half decade (data source: SATP).

civilian casualties

The above graph probably understates the level of drop-off, since it includes deaths from all over Pakistan, including Karachi where much of the violence has little to do directly with the Taliban or Pakistan’s war against it. When you look at civilian casualties in FATA and KP, the main arenas of this war, the drop-off from the last couple of years becomes clearer (apologies, data does not go back further).

cckpf

This decline in violence is probably down to a combination of the following factors: (1) the state persuading some of the bad Taliban to become the good Taliban, (2) some of the bad Taliban being attracted by the greener pastures of Iraq and Syria, (3) a squeezing of space for some bad Taliban to operate thanks to Zarb-e-Azb, (4) plenty of practice of dealing with these assholes for so long.

I’m not saying this necessarily means much or is worth anything (“yay, only 400 people died in the northwest this year!”), but I do think it’s important to be aware of the trend of declining violence recently, so that we may place this massacre in better context.

2. The bad Taliban are probably interesting in showing there’s plenty of fight left in them yet, but how much does attacking a soft target like a goddamn school really do so? The Karachi airport/PNS Mehran/GHQ type of attacks showed bravado and skill (amongst other things). Climbing a school wall and shooting 130 kids in the head really doesn’t do that, it just shows they’re depraved maniacs (as do quotes like “shoot the older students but not the children”, which were evidently the orders given).

This will probably sound different when you read it in your head than when I write it in mine, but anyone could attack a school. It’s really not that hard. I mean, think back to the lame chowkidars who used to man your school gates — whose main task was keeping kids from bunking classes, along with working an elaborate quid pro quo scheme with makai-walas  — and then think about the fact that the TTP is one of the most ruthless and successful insurgent organizations in history, and the extent of the mismatch becomes clear.

Put it this way, if attacking schools is all these guys have left, then kudos to the military for having degraded their capability and prepared enough in harder targets (no sarcasm). I don’t think it’s all they have left, but the balance of hard and soft targets bears watching in the months ahead.

3. I don’t think one can underestimate the role of factionalization and splintering here. As Paul Staniland told Vox:

A number of moderate factions have made peace with the government, Staniland explained, so that what is left behind is an increasingly radical core that is splintering into different groups…Competition for power within an armed group or between different splintering factions often leads to increased violence, as leaders jockey to prove their authority and improve their reputations by carrying out ever more audacious or brutal attacks.

4. It is also the case that the longer a particular conflict goes on, the more audacious and brutal attacks have to become to intimidate and attract attention. We’ve all become desensitized to violence, they know it, and so they escalate to ever more gruesome and brutal violence to send their message. Laurent Gayer talked about a similar dynamic in his brilliant book on violence in Karachi:

Following the armed clashes of 12 May 2007 between MQM and ANP gunmen, dead bodies stacked in gunny bags reappeared across the city. As in the past, these corpses would often be tied up and bear torture marks. More often than not — and this is a more recent trend — they would also be beheaded or castrated. In the most extreme cases, only torsos are found. These increasingly ‘cruel methodologies’, to use the terms of the CJP Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, seem to be the answer of Karachi’s ‘violent specialists’ to the routinisation of violence in the city. As murder alone no longer catches the attention of the public, assassins and their political patrons have shifted terror tactics to ‘tip the scales’, a trend also witness in Colombia in the late 1980s. Target killers are thus paid more to mutilate their victims in a certain way to frighten the public. These mutilations also make it more difficult for the police to identify the victims and trace down their killers.

Then again, I don’t want to overstate this dynamic: schools have been a favorite target of these guys for a long time, and not twelve months ago they were stopped from a similar(ish) attack by a hero/martyr/kid. One proviso would be that even given this proclivity for attacking schools, this is the biggest one attempted or executed I can recall; even the Hangu-failed-attempt was just three guys, and most of the hundreds of schools attacked have “just” been bomb blasts. This was seven guys with machine guns and suicide jackets FFS, better suited to penetrating Hitler’s bunker than an educational institution.

5. One wonders how Peshawar will ever recover from this war. It is (was?) one of Pakistan’s truly great cities. And now?

This morning, when I first learned of the attack, I instinctively knew it was one of the worst in one of the worst civil wars ever. We’ve seen so much shit in this war that, off the top of my head, I could only remember and compare with the really big attacks: Islamabad Marriot, Hazara snooker club in Quetta, the shrines, Abbas Town etc. Upon reciting this list to myself in my head, I recoiled with the sudden realization that I didn’t remember a single specific attack in KP or FATA. Why? There’s just been too many of them for any one to stand out in my memory.

No single city has borne the costs of this war more than Peshawar. It’s not even close.

About Ahsan Butt

Assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason.

7 comments

  1. Dear Ahsan/Admin,

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  2. Peshawar incident has left whole Pakistan speechless…….

  3. There is a mistake here. I suspect your second graph does not include the Peshawar school attack, since the total figure for KP is 403 all inclusive which is worse than 2012.

    http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/pakistan/database/fatilities_regionwise2014.htm