Two months after the attack on Army Public School, Peshawar, in which 150 persons were killed, including 134 children, the impact of this tragedy on Pakistan is becoming clearer and can be assessed. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility, saying, “we targeted the school because the army targets our families”, a clear indication that the attack was revenge for the Pakistan military’s operations in North Waziristan.
But instead of weakening the army and dissuading it from fighting the Islamists, this attack has reinforced the military’s position in Pakistan and its determination to take on at least some militants. First, the attack, which resulted in the loss of so many sons of armymen, has given rise to an emotional urge among people to show solidarity with the institution whose soldiers and officers are not just fighting on the ground but suffering tragic bereavements too. Second, in a war-like atmosphere of this kind, more than before, the army appears to be the saviour. Third, the army showed great decisiveness. This is evident from the trip of the chief of army staff, Raheel Sharif, to Kabul on December 17, to persuade the Afghan authorities to help the Pakistan army take on Mullah Fazlullah, chief of the TTP, who was supposed to have been operating from Afghanistan.
Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also displayed firmness by lifting the moratorium on capital punishment. But the first six people executed were on death row for taking part in the attack against the GHQ in 2009 or being involved in an attempt on General Pervez Musharraf’s life. The government seemed to signal that those who “deserved” to be killed first were people who had targeted the army.
Fourth, the reaction of the government and the Pakistan parliament reinforced the army’s position. On December 24, a national action plan (NAP) was shaped by representatives of the nation. Indeed, all parties with elected members in Parliament, including the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which seized this opportunity to suspend its six-month-old agitation, and the army were involved in the drafting of the plan. Among the NAP’s 20 points were “zero tolerance for militancy in Punjab”, where the Pakistan Muslim League (N), or PML(N), has been accused of complacency, a commitment that the “execution of convicted terrorists will continue” and the “establishment of special trial courts for two years for speedy trial of terror suspects”.
Something certainly had to be done to fight terrorism and bring the guilty to book more effectively. In Sindh, for instance, the 18 anti-terrorism courts had disposed of only 798 cases between September 2013 and November 2014, out of 2,700 pending cases. The conviction rate is also very low (32 per cent) — of the 798 cases, 543 resulted in acquittals. This dysfunction of the rule of law is generally attributed to the judiciary. But the problems are often due to poor investigation by the police and the absence of witness (and lawyer) protection by the security apparatus. The government’s fear of reprisals also needs to be factored in. Though the judges have sentenced to death about 8,000 criminals who are now on death row, a world record, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government had decided to place a moratorium on capital punishment in 2008. Nawaz Sharif had continued with it till the Peshawar tragedy.
But instead of reforming the judicial process to overcome these limitations, the all-parties conference that gave shape to the 20-point NAP decided to hand terrorism cases over to military courts. Certainly, dissenting voices were heard among Islamic parties — the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) apprehended that the military courts could be used to target religious seminaries and institutions — as well as within the PPP and the PTI. But mostly, the dissidents argued against the need to amend the constitution in order to establish such a practice. PPP senator Aitzaz Ahsan, for instance, while supportive of resorting to military courts in terrorism-related cases, felt that they could be instituted “through a simple amendment to the law, instead of amending the constitution”.
However, the military was adamant: they wanted this transfer of judicial authority, which nullified an important dimension of the separation of powers, to be protected as much as possible from a ruling of the Supreme Court. In the past, the court has struck down laws of the same kind on the grounds that they violated the constitution. The political class offered the military this huge concession on a platter. In that sense, the post-Peshawar scenario has allowed the army to continue to assert its power at the expense of the civilians — according to Zahid Hussain, “Even the term ‘soft coup’ may not be an appropriate one”.
However, after the Peshawar tragedy, civil society organisations mobilised in a rather unprecedented manner. In Islamabad, demonstrators protested before the Lal Masjid after its main cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, declared that he would not condemn the killing of children in Peshawar and that he would not consider them martyrs. A case was filed against him on December 19. On December 26, the district court of Islamabad issued a non-bailable warrant for his arrest on the charge of threatening the demonstrators who had camped for a few days outside the mosque. But, as The Dawn reported, “police officers said they were finding it hard to implement the orders in the case of Abdul Aziz, and feared that his detention under the Maintenance of Public Order may create a law and order situation”.
In fact, the police had already registered 22 cases against him before and after the Lal Masjid siege in 2007. None of them had progressed much, mainly because witnesses reportedly changed their testimony or failed to appear in court. This may be attributed largely to fear. Hardly anything has changed after Peshawar, except that the cleric delivered his Lal Masjid sermons over the phone instead of in person, using the microphone of the mosque, which is run by the government.
Other Islamists have been spared. The Haqqani network and the Jamat-ud-Dawa (the name under which the Lashkar-e-Taiba is functioning) are cases in point. Last month, the US administration welcomed Pakistan’s decision to ban them, but Islamabad had not made any such announcement. It merely indicated that these outfits had been designated as terrorist organisations by the UN and that, as a member of the UN, Pakistan was obligated to “proscribe” the “entities and individuals that are listed”. Except that the Haqqani network as well as the JuD and its chief, Hafiz Saeed, were “listed” by the UN in 2012 and 2008, respectively, and this has hardly made any difference in Pakistan.
In December 2014, for the first time since its inception in the 1980s, the JuD held its annual ijtema (congregation) in Punjab. Saeed addressed a crowd of about 4,00,000. Asked five weeks later about the “ban” announced by the US, Saeed declared that it was “nothing new”: “It has been going on over the past six years”.
On December 24, during a televised address, Nawaz Sharif had declared, “A line has been drawn. On one side are coward terrorists and on the other side stands the whole nation”. He also said, “The Peshawar atrocity has changed Pakistan”. The magnitude of this change is not yet clear. Certainly, civil society has tried to mobilise and the army is pursuing the North Waziristan operation with unprecedented determination, but it is also acquiring more and more power at the expense of the democratisation process. And “good Islamists”, including the JuD leaders, still have a strong presence in the public sphere.
Postscript: Last week, the TTP claimed responsibility for a suicide attack that killed 19 people in a Shia mosque in Peshawar, in retaliation for the executions mentioned above. This shows that the “blood for blood” escalation continues.