Pakistan massacre: Taliban blowback against all-out Army offensive?

The killing of 145 or more people, mostly children, at an Army-run school in Peshawar today came amid a six-month Army campaign in North Waziristan.

Mohammad Sajjad/AP
A Pakistani soldier takes position close to the military school that Taliban gunmen attacked in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Tuesday.

The Taliban’s deadly attack Tuesday on a military-run school in northwestern Pakistan comes after a massive six-month military operation aimed at Islamic militants in a nearby tribal region, as well as confident assertions only last week by Army officials and the nation's prime minister, about the campaign's effectiveness. 

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said on Dec. 9 the campaign, dubbed “Operation Zarb-e-Azb,” had delivered a fatal blow to Taliban strongholds in North Waziristan. But today's attack served as a brutal reminder of the group’s resilience and lingering influence.

At least 145 people, most of them children, were killed when a half dozen gunmen stormed the school in the city of Peshawar, located about 90 miles northwest of Islamabad.

The siege ended Tuesday evening local time after all the militants were killed. It was the deadliest attack in Pakistan since 2008, when a suicide bomber killed 150 people in the port city of Karachi, according to The Associated Press.

A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility in a phone call with reporters on Tuesday, explaining that it was carried out in retaliation for the military’s offensive against militants in North Waziristan.

The Pakistani Taliban – known as Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan, or TTP – has been on the defensive since June, when the Pakistani military, under pressure from the US, launched Zarb-e-Azb. Mr. Sharif pushed the campaign after peace talks between the Pakistani government and the Taliban last spring fell through. 

The Army crackdown aimed to drive out all militant groups that use North Waziristan as a safe haven. It employed airstrikes and as many as 30,000 troops. Military officials in Rawalpindi claim the Army has so far killed 1,800 militants, and Sharif pledged Tuesday to continue Zarb-e-Azb

“I feel that until and unless this country is cleansed from terrorism, this war and effort will not stop,” he was quoted in Pakistan Today.

The US military provided assistance to Pakistani forces through targeted drone strikes in the mountainous border territory, which became a global hub for terrorist groups after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The military claims to have cleared much of the region since June, according to The New York Times. Last week, military leaders gave the go ahead for the return of more than one million people displaced by the operation to their homes in North Waziristan.

“Pakistan Army has given exemplary sacrifices in this operation,” Sharif said at a security meeting last Tuesday, according to Pakistan Today, when he initiated the start of rehabilitation efforts in the tribal region.

But the operation is not without controversy. While some experts say peace negotiations have no chance of succeeding given the record of militants breaking ceasefires, others warn that a concentrated military campaign presents its own set of unintended consequences. As The Guardian reported in June:

Despite the dangers posed by North Waziristan, many analysts, including one senior western security official in Islamabad, warn an operation may only succeed in forcing dangerous militants into other parts of the country, including the already turbulent city of Karachi where the Pakistani Taliban has made dramatic inroads in recent years.

They say the police are simply not prepared to fight an urban insurgency.

Tuesday’s attack raises the sobering question: Has the Pakistani military truly crippled Taliban militants or has it left them room to regroup?

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