This month saw the Taliban attack on a school, with almost 145 children dead. This is a new escalation in an ongoing war; while American drone attacks have been reduced, Pakistani military engagement in its border area has significantly increased. But why are the Taliban now attacking schools?
Terrorism is a competitive market
For a long time, the Taliban had a de facto monopoly on islamic terrorism. Sure, Chechnya and Bosnia took some of its glory, and there is also Somalia and Nigeria, but since the war in Bosnia ended and the war in Chechnya was unsuccessful, the Taliban remained the only internationally relevant dschihadist group. Unlike Al Schabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Qaida in Iraq, the Taliban had a fairly well organized group, a known “brand”, and controlled a fix territory, allowing them to make the news frequently and recruit international dschihadis. Their ability to withstand full american engagement made was an important narrative to sell and attract support, be it money or recruits.
And then, almost over night, Isis happened. Isis, in many ways, are the new Taliban. But they are new and fresh – suddenly, potential Taliban recruits in Pakistan would travel to Syria/Iraq to join Isis. This means that the Taliban will have to compete with Isis for recruits and donations; and, as terrorism works, they will rely on propaganda for that. What better way to make the news than to commit heinous atrocities?
The Taliban needed some form of “success” to compete with Isis, to show they are still around. It is a simple mechanism of survival: If they are not rekognized as a force to, well, reckon with, they will receive less support, damaging their capabilities. So, they have to get more active.
Meanwhile, new “markets” are emerging
Also, let us not forget: This year saw the “end” of international engagement in Afghanistan. Well, maybe not an end; but Afghani security are now mainly dealing with Taliban on their own. And that is going to be extremely hard. With less control over areas in Afghanistan, the Taliban in Pakistan now have more room to operate in. Less military presence in the border area will mean: More money from drugs and extortions, more strategic options, more potential recruits.
Seeing this, it is no surprise that the Pakistani branch would become more active. They have more potential, and they are using it – thereby destroying any hope for peace talks. The Taliban ties to the ISI are not helping, either; for a long time, factions within the Pakistani security community supported the Taliban. This support ranged from intelligence to weapons – something the Taliban are now using against the Pakistani military.
Someone up in the ranks must be really angry about that.
Change in Pakistani strategy
This dilemma is the result of uncertainty within the Pakistani state of how to deal with the Taliban. Some factions openly supported them, others fought them. For a long time, both were somewhat accommodated; after all, the “real” threat was India: having a couple of Islamists under Pakistani control would help. It turned out that there was little control to begin with – now, figures like General Raheel Sharif are pushing for a change in strategy.
This is something I have been terribly wrong about; in 2013, I claimed there would be no change in Pakistani policy with regards to the Taliban. And yet, only half a year later, operation Zarb-e-Azb saw Pakistani boots on the ground, fighting Taliban. This was the result of failed peace talks, which I had predicted in the same article: Drone strikes were not effective in ending the Taliban, but they factionalized them, making peace talks almost impossible. After all, if you do not know who will have power tomorrow, you will have a hard time talking to leaders.
This new hard line against Taliban is accompanied by a new stance towards prisoners; hundreds, if not thousands, could be executed in retaliation for the school attack. The school attack was retaliation for the military offensive, which was retaliation for… you get the picture.
What will happen next?
It is fairly safe to assume that the school massacre has not softened up the military. Their offensive will continue, if not increase in intensity. Meanwhile, executing prisoners is likely to cause more retaliation attacks. Add to that the competition from Isis and the new options that arise in Afghanistan, and you will see how the situation might not improve in near future.
Full out military engagement in itself is never a solution to violence (the exception to the rule might be Sri Lanka, but that took only decades and thousands of human rights violations to pull off). Rather, it will be a South American experience – the population getting in between a more violent state and insurgents that have less and less to lose. Meanwhile, the Taliban get more factionalized and lose leaders that could negotiate some form of peace.
The best case scenario, which is likely what the army is hoping for, is to push the Taliban out of their retreats and improve the state’s odds when eventually, negotiations come up again. With their backs against the wall, the Taliban (comprised of roughly half a dozen major factions by now) are more likely to negotiate, and can insist less on their demands. This is a midterm goal, however; it will do nothing against short-term violence.
And it is uncertain whether there will be any leaders left to talk to. Another likely scenario includes some Taliban branches negotiating for peace, while smaller, more radicalized cells continue to fight. And those cells would have less firepower, making them less likely to engage the military and more likely to concentrate on civilian massacres.
What to do
The state has pulled something off which seemed almost impossible before: Somewhat uniting the population against the Taliban. This might be a short-term sentiment following the school massacre, but it is helpful. Now they need to isolate the Taliban further.
Executions are unlikely to help. Instead, improved security (to prevent escapes) are necessary. Prisoners are important bargaining chips for future peace negotiations; executing them will only increase violence.
As for military engagement: Military presence in the border area is crucial to establish state control and limit Taliban movements. However, there is a difference between massive operations and pushing the Taliban slowly back to prepare negotiations. Finding branches that are likely to cooperate will be a difficult, but central job – here, the ISI’s knowledge might finally prove useful. But only if there is some sort of assurance that ISI branches are not playing a double game, supporting “good” Taliban factions while eliminating “bad” Taliban factions before any peace deals have been brokered.
Anyways: Trying to balance pro-Taliban and contra-Taliban factions, trying to broker a peace while leading the most intense military engagement against the Taliban – being a Pakistani leader right now must be the least pleasant job you could possibly have.