On Tuesday, Taliban militants in Pakistan killed 141 people – 132 of whom were children – at a school, not only shocking the conscience of the world but perhaps setting in motion a reaction that the jihadist group did not intend. Just like the United States after 9/11, Pakistan may never be the same after this galvanizing assault.
The attack by seven terrorists in the city of Peshawar was designed to avenge recent operations by the military against the group known as Tehrik-e-Taliban. The school is run by the military, but most of the students killed were not children of soldiers. The attack was the worst since 2007, when 150 people were killed in a suicide bombing in Karachi.
What is remarkable about the Pakistani reaction is that the heads of all national political parties met with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to consider joint action against the Taliban challenge. In symbolic terms alone, this is progress. In a recent ranking of the world’s most “fragile states” by the Fund for Peace, Pakistan came out 10th. It is a weak democracy, awash in armed groups such as religious militias, separatist rebels, private guards, and criminal gangs.
“We are deeply fragmented today as a nation,” said Minister for Defense Khawaja Muhammad Asif after the attack. But he added, “We must have one message for the enemy. We shall overcome [with the will of Allah] and rid our land of this scourge.”
The Pakistani military also has a long history of lording it over civilian leaders. Its intelligence arm has even backed groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan. Any society needs civilian leaders who not only reflect the consent of the governed but are given sole authority over the use of violence to keep order. For Pakistan, civilian supremacy is still a work in progress although it has improved as more Pakistanis realize they must confront the violence of jihadists and their ideology of abolishing democracy.
For decades, Pakistan’s military tolerated or backed militant groups for religious reasons or for strategic purposes against India and Afghanistan. But a naive belief that there are good and bad jihadists may be coming to an end. Perhaps the top brass also recognizes that elected civilian leaders, no matter how flawed, best reflect the national purpose.
Armed groups like the Taliban only fill a vacuum when a country’s democratic institutions fail to provide basic services such as security, justice, and jobs. Those secular responsibilities cannot be fulfilled by sectarian groups. Pakistan needs to cement its identity as a democratic nation, rooted in elected leaders and rule of law, not rule by groups with guns or suicide belts. Only then can its children be safe.