Pakistan Army strikes back hard after school massacre by Taliban

Retaliation after the killing of more than 130 children in Peshawar targeted the Khyber tribal region along the border with Afghanistan. The Army claims at least 77 Pakistani Taliban were killed. 

Akhtar Soomro/Reuters
Students sit while holding placards and candles for the victims of the Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, along a road in Karachi December 19, 2014. More than 130 students were killed on Tuesday when Taliban gunmen broke into the school and opened fire, witnesses said, in the bloodiest massacre the country has seen for years.

Pakistani Army officials said today they struck Taliban targets near the border with Afghanistan, killing at least 77 militants, days after the Taliban massacred children at a school in what may be a defining moment for the nation. 

The air and ground attacks late Thursday and Friday followed an eight-hour killing spree on Tuesday of 148 people, including more than 130 children, at a military school in Peshawar.

Many Pakistanis saw the massacre as an incomparable horror and called for the government to retaliate. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the school attack, saying it was justified to inflict pain on the Pakistani military in retribution for attacks that had killed Taliban fighters’ children and family members.

Among the militants killed in Pakistan’s retaliatory strikes early Friday was a group of 32 fighters. They were ambushed in the Khyber tribal region’s Tirah valley as they headed toward the Afghan border, the Associated Press quoted the Pakistani military as saying.

The Khyber Agency borders Peshawar. That city and North Waziristan are the two main areas of northwest Pakistan where the military has conducted operations against a variant of Taliban forces dating to last June. In Pakistan they are sometimes known as the "bad Taliban," since they are hostile to the Army, which they see as in cahoots with the West and the US.

On Friday morning, troops killed 18 more militants during a "cordon and search operation" in Khyber, the military said. …

In the southern province of Baluchistan, Pakistani security forces killed a senior Pakistani Taliban leader along with seven of his associates in three separate pre-dawn raids, said a tribal police officer, Ali Ahmed.

Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif late Thursday signed death warrants of six "hard core terrorists" convicted and sentenced to death by military courts, the army said.

The show of resolve in battling the militants comes as a debate rages in Pakistan over "bad Taliban” and “good Taliban," the latter being seen as cooperative regarding Pakistani aims and interests in projecting power and influence in Afghanistan. 

Amid the public outcry over the massacre, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared "there is no difference between good Taliban and bad Taliban" and vowed to redouble military efforts "to clean this region of terrorism," the Los Angeles Times reported.

But the challenges were immediately evident as Pakistan's anti-terrorism court on Thursday granted bail to Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the suspected mastermind of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. The court decision came over the objections of a prosecutor, signaling the deep division in the army and political establishment over whether to break ties with the militants, who for years have been a cornerstone of the country's security policy, or make more use of them.

"There's reason to be skeptical of Sharif's statements because he's not the man in charge," said Raza Rumi, a Pakistan expert and senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. It was the army chief of staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif, no relation to the prime minister, who rushed to Afghanistan after the Peshawar attack to call for the handing over of Pakistani Taliban leaders believed to be living on Afghan soil, Rumi said.

Taha Siddiqui, a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, wrote this week that in Pakistan, popular sentiment against the United States is so strong, and a hard-line religious ideology so widespread, that the impact of the school attack on public opinion may wane.

Yet even after one of the most horrific slaughters of the innocent in Pakistani history, it is questionable whether the public is ready to entirely abandon its support of militancy – or a deeply populist view that the basic cause of the attacks stem from US and Western interference. …

The Pakistani Taliban, which quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, have long presented themselves as sympathetic and devout fighters subject to US drone attacks and unscrupulous Pakistani officials. 

Several analysts say the incident will likely soon be forgotten, noting popular influences in the media that include conservative Islamists arguing that the real issue is Pakistan’s alliance with the West in what they depict as a fight against Islam.

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