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Strengthening Army's resolve

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezDecember 16, 2014

Taliban gunmen have killed dozens of children after storming a military-run school in Pakistan. But the attack will only intensify the hunt for the militants who are now fighting for survival, says analyst Omar Hamid.

Pakistan Taliban-Überfall auf Schule in Peshawar 16.12.2014
Image: Reuters/K. Parvez

At least 141 people, most of them children, were killed when Taliban militants stormed the school in the north-western city of Peshawar. The gunmen also took hundreds of students and teachers hostage in one of the bloodiest attacks in the country in years.

About 500 students from grades 1-10 were believed to be inside the school when the attack began in the morning hours of Tuesday, December 16, with the gunmen entering the school and shooting at random, according to Pakistani authorities.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in retaliation for the army's continuing offensive against militants in the North Waziristan tribal area close to Peshawar. Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif called the massacre a "national tragedy" as he headed to Peshawar.

Pakistan has been fighting homegrown Islamists for over a decade, with the country's military now locked in battle against Taliban and al Qaeda-linked militants hiding out in the restive North Waziristan tribal area on the Afghan border. It is believed that some of the region's most feared militants use North Waziristan as a launching pad for attacks within Pakistan as well as against NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

Omar Hamid
Hamid: 'For the TTP, it is now a game of survival'Image: IHS

Omar Hamid, Head of Asia Pacific Country Risk at IHS, a global analytics firm, says in a DW interview that the latest attack will only further strengthen the Pakistani Army's resolve to fight the militants. For the TTP it is now a game of survival, he adds.

DW: Why was this target selected and why now?

Omar Hamid: The school is an Army-run public school, where a majority of children would have parents in the Army, so it represents a soft target that directly impacts the armed forces. As the TTP spokesperson has said, they wanted the military to feel their pain.

The structure of the attack is very similar to previous high profile attacks by the TTP, most notably the attack on the Army's general headquarters in 2009, where the TTP used army uniforms to infiltrate security, and earlier attacks on cadet colleges - army schools - in Razmak, in north Waziristan.

How is this related to the army's continuing operation against militants in the North Waziristan tribal area close to Peshawar?

There is no doubt that the Army's operation has weakened the capabilities of the TTP. This is why a target that was relatively close to the Tribal Areas, i.e. in Peshawar, was selected. The purpose is to take revenge for the Army operation, and to try and weaken the resolve of military commanders.

The Pakistani military had made claims that the militants are significantly weakened. What is your view on this after this attack?

Although weakened, the TTP retains the ability to carry out attacks like this. It would probably be harder for them to launch attacks further away from their area of operations, say in Punjab province, but Peshawar is very accessible from the Tribal Areas and would be an obvious target, as XI corps, the army formation running the operation in FATA, is based there.

Pakistan Taliban-Überfall auf Schule in Peshawar 16.12.2014
'The structure of the attack is very similar to previous high profile attacks by the TTP,' says HamidImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Sajjad

How will the TPP be viewed in Pakistan after this massacre of children?

I think popular public opinion had already shifted against the TTP some time ago, but of course there remain some elements who would advocate peace talks. But since the beginning of the Army operation in July 2014, there hasn't really been any major appetite for peace talks. Indeed, in his visit to Washington DC last month, Army chief General Raheel Sharif said publicly that he would not countenance any negotiations with the militants who had played football with his soldier's heads.

I think this will further strengthen the Army's resolve and you can probably expect pretty much across the board condemnation of the TTP. For the TTP, it is now a game of survival, and they will propagate such attacks in the hope that their barbarity can weaken the resolve of the military.

What impact is this attack likely to have on PM Nawaz Sharif's government?

The principle actor as far as counter-terrorism is concerned is the Army. The TTP also realize this hence their targeting of something related to the Army. The Army will take the lead in any response and the government is unlikely to impede them in any way.

One of the main changes brought about by the political destabilization of the Sharif government over the past few months is that they have virtually handed over responsibility for security and the country's Afghanistan policy to the Army. Sharif is being criticized by some quarters for having delayed the Army action by six months, but similarly some blame will also land on his opponents, Imran Khan's PTI party, who are in government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, for their perceived soft corner for the TTP.

Pakistan Waziristan Armee Infanterie ARCHIV
Hamid: 'The principle actor as far as counter-terrorism is concerned is the Army'Image: picture-alliance/AP

What could be the implication of a stronger Taliban in Pakistan for the situation in Afghanistan?

The Pakistan Taliban issue is tied up to Afghanistan because it is likely that Pakistan will demand US and Afghan action to target the Pakistani Taliban leadership in eastern Afghanistan, as a quid pro quo to supporting or pushing the Afghan Taliban towards peace talks.

Omar Hamid is Head of Asia Pacific Country Risk at IHS, a global analytics firm.