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Pakistan Mourns New Taliban School Massacre in Latest Blowback from Internal Conflict, Afghan War

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Pakistan is once again mourning mass casualties from an armed assault on one of its schools. At least 20 people were killed and dozens injured on Wednesday when gunmen stormed the northwest Bacha Khan University under the cover of morning fog. The four attackers scaled the school’s rear wall before storming through the campus, gunning down students and teachers in classrooms and halls. The attack comes just weeks after Pakistan marked the first anniversary of the December 2014 Taliban massacre at a school in Peshawar. More than 150 people were killed in the massacre, most of them children from military families. It was the deadliest militant attack in Pakistan’s history. The Taliban faction that committed the Peshawar massacre has also taken responsibility for Wednesday’s attack, calling it revenge for the military’s intensified crackdown on its members. We are joined by two guests: Jibran Nasir, a Pakistani political activist and lawyer, and Tariq Ali, a political commentator, historian, activist, filmmaker, novelist and author of several books on Pakistani politics and history.

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NERMEEN SHAIKH: Pakistan is once again mourning mass casualties from an armed assault on one of its schools. At least 20 people were killed and dozens injured on Wednesday when gunmen stormed the northwest Bacha Khan University under the cover of morning fog. The four attackers scaled the school’s rear wall before storming through the campus, gunning down students and teachers in classrooms and halls. One witness described the scene.

WITNESS: [translated] I was sitting in class when the firing started. There was lots of fog, and the visibility was very poor. Then the security personnel came and asked us to leave. We ran away from there. We went upstairs on the third floor of the vice chancellor’s office. When I was waiting at the stairs, a terrorist came there and opened fire at me. I escaped the gunfire. I ran upstairs and jumped from the third floor. Then I fell unconscious.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The rampage ended when Pakistani security forces cornered the attackers, killing them before they could detonate their suicide vests. At least some of the gunmen were apparently teenagers.

The assault came on the 28th anniversary of the death of Pashtun nationalist leader Bacha Khan, the university’s namesake. Khan’s party, the Awami National Party, is known for its anti-Taliban views. The attack also comes just weeks after Pakistan marked the first anniversary of the December [ 2014 ] Taliban massacre at a school in Peshawar. More than 150 people were killed in the massacre, most of them children from military families. It was the deadliest militant attack in Pakistan’s history.

AMY GOODMAN: The Taliban faction that committed the Peshawar massacre in 2014 has also taken responsibility for Wednesday’s attack, calling it revenge for the military’s intensified crackdown on its members. Pakistan has hanged over 300 alleged Taliban members over the past year as part of a wider offensive launched in June 2014. But Pakistan’s main Taliban group, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, quickly disavowed Wednesday’s massacre, calling it an “un-Islamic act.” The Pakistani Taliban is an offshoot of the Taliban movement in neighboring Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban remains divided over whether to join peace talks to end Afghanistan’s more than 14-year war.

For more, we’re joined by Tariq Ali. He is a well-known political analyst. He is Pakistani-British. We’re going to London to speak with him, a political commentator, historian, activist, filmmaker and editor of New Left Review. His most recent book, The Extreme Centre: A Warning. He’s also author of several books on Pakistani politics and history.

Tariq, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you explain what’s taken place, your response, and, for a global audience, where this is and the significance of this?

TARIQ ALI: Well, Amy, of course, every atrocity comes as a shock and a surprise, but I have to point out that this has been going on now for several years. And when the Afghanistan War began, I pointed out that one of the side effects of this war was going to be the destabilization of Pakistan, especially in the northern province which borders Afghanistan and where people, the Pashtun people, speak the same language as many Afghans. So there are very close links between Pashtun, the Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan, and the Pashtun people in Afghanistan, who form a majority. So, when you wage war on one country, and the way you wage that war, it’s very difficult to stop that war from spilling over.

And the effects of this spillage now in Pakistan have become completely uncontrollable. Every time there is an atrocity, not just the schoolchildren who were killed a few years ago or the tragedy that happened two days ago—it’s not just them, it has been attacks in different parts of the country by different jihadi fundamentalist groups. Every time it happens, the prime minister of the country vows in public to end this menace forever. The army tells the public and actually does mount some operations, but these operations then are temporary affairs, and they can’t be anything else. They come back from the area, and more recruits are found by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and some of the other groups.

So, the attack on this particular university seems to be motivated by little else than symbolism. The university was—is in the name of Bacha Khan, which was the nickname of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, one of the pre-partition leaders of the national movement for Indian independence, together with Gandhi and Nehru and others. And his most important contribution in this region was to teach the Pashtun people the value of nonviolence. All his work, his political work, in this area was carried out on the basis of nonviolence. And it was successful. Even when the British committed atrocities, like the massacres that took place in Qissa Khawani Bazaar in Peshawar during British rule, his response was, “We will fight them via mass movements, by civil disobedience. We will not use violence.” And he, of course, is seen today as a progressive, secular, nonviolent leader who fought for his people against the British. And this, they don’t like, because they don’t like him. Ghaffar Khan was imprisoned by virtually every single Pakistani government when he was alive—military dictatorships and civilian governments. And when he died, his will said he wanted to be buried in Afghanistan in Jalalabad, and that is where he was buried. So this is a symbolic attack, to stop the university from marking his anniversary, by a group of total fanatics.

And the serious question that we have to ask is this: What are the transmission belts that supply these young fanatics to organizations like the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or the Jaish-e-Mohammed or other smaller groups that exist in the country? And this is a question that the ruling elites in Pakistan never actually ask themselves, because if they ask this question, then they themselves are partially guilty.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But, Tariq Ali, in addition to the problem that you point to, many commentators say that the Pakistani state and military deliberately turn a blind eye to a number of these militant groups operating in Pakistan. Could you respond to that? Is that true?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I think this has certainly been true over the last 20 years, Nermeen, because Pakistan feels it has a stake in Afghanistan. And don’t forget that the capture of Afghanistan by the Taliban, when it happened, was backed by Pakistani troops, by Pakistani Air Force units, by undercover people, organized, armed, funded by the ISI, the Inter-Services Intelligence. So, after 9/11, when the United States compelled them—actually forced them, at the point of a gun—to withdraw support and to bring the Taliban out of there, they did so, but reluctantly. And they have been waiting for a long, long time to go back in there. And this is one reason why some groups, not all, are not touched by them, because they see them as a strategic asset which might need to be used again once the U.S. withdraws.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Jibran Nasir into this conversation, Pakistani political activist and lawyer, launched a popular campaign called Reclaim Your Mosques following the 2014 Peshawar school attacks. He’s joining us by Democracy Now! video stream from Islamabad. The reaction inside Pakistan to this latest horror, not so far from the attack last year, and what this means for Pakistan right now, before we talk about U.S.-Pakistan relations, as well?

JIBRAN NASIR: Well, I think, first of all—well, let us be clear: We’ve been using the term “the war against terror” for a long time, but I think that’s a misnomer, because war seems to have an end. This madness does not seem to have an end, and it’s better to call it a struggle, a struggle for peace, which the world is part of it right now. The university in Garissa in Kenya was attacked, as well, in 2015, earlier last year. And, of course, these differencies of attacks have been taking place in the region wherever the terrorists get to find a soft target. And, of course, the reaction in Pakistan, everybody is up in arms and all appalled.

This was expected because, of course, a full-fledged military operation has been launched against the Taliban in the northern province, not in the entire Pakistan region. When I say a “full-fledged military operation,” it’s specifically launched in the northern belt of Pakistan. I do not know what the extent of the operation is in the other parts of Pakistan, but, of course, this was a reaction to that. And wherever they’re going to find a soft target, they’re going to come back and attack us. And with every such attack, they’re laying it bare that they don’t really have any morals or any codes or any rule of law of war they would like to follow. It’s simple terror they want to spread. And it’s simple—one message they want to give, that they would go to any extent to achieve their ends and aims. And what I would like to also stress here is that, of course, this attack is in Pakistan, but it is against Pakistan, it is against the state and the citizens of Pakistan. And we here are victims of terrorists, terrorism, in this instance.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jibran Nasir, could you also say who Umar Mansoor is, the senior Pakistani Taliban commander who was apparently responsible for the 2014 attack on the Peshawar school and who initially claimed responsibility for yesterday’s attack?

JIBRAN NASIR: To the best of my knowledge, all I can say is Umar Mansoor is a face or profile, because [inaudible] were coming from there. I’ve not seen any of his video messages or any other things. See, these personalities, these cults can be created. At the end, you also—again, the question, which was asked earlier by you, we need to answer: Who are the transmission belts for these things? And we need to look at that. And Umar Mansoor, of course, one of those beneficiaries of those transmission belts. This entire nexus of terrorism in Pakistan, be it the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Mohmand or Bajaur or Jamaat-ul-Ahrar or other of these factions which keep on cropping up, they’re all connected. They’re all getting funding from some end. One has to, of course, take into account the fact that this attack took place not on the border of Pakistan, it took place in Charsadda. The distance from the Afghani border all the way to Charsadda, there are various security points throughout that way. How were these people able to carry these weapons, walk through all the security checks and enter that university? It’s one thing, yes, that the Pakistan military was great enough to react on time and secure the place within six hours and curtail the extent of damage. But the failure happened where the security breach happened. So it could be Umar Mansoor or anybody else. What we need to know is what precautions and what measures are being taken by the state of Pakistan, and how were these people able to carry out this attack, going through all those security checks, and be able to enter the university.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jibran Nasir, so what do you think accounts for the fact that they were able to breach all of the security checkpoints and gain access to this university campus?

JIBRAN NASIR: See, the thing here is that this is not a war between two countries where identities are clearly drawn. This is an ideological war where religion has been brought into the picture, and religion does really know caste, creed, culture or borders, for that matter. It’s an ideological battle. And we need to realize this, that because Pakistan has been part of this war for the past 40 years, this wave of radicalization, which was imposed on us—and at that time, of course, when the Taliban were created in the ’90s, and General Musharraf says that was created by Pakistani intelligence, they were not seen as terrorists at that time. They were actually recognized as a legitimate government by many countries at that time. But, of course, since 9/11, as the scale has changed around the world, they are now being seen as terrorists. And, of course, their motives are also becoming more clear with this widespread wave of violence.

We are going through a state of self-denial, through a state of conflict, where I think the society of Pakistan, as well, is conflicted on certain areas, on religious grounds and other grounds, because religion is presented to us in various forms and interpretations through these radical outfits. And it all comes down to which ideology do you want to prescribe to. So you may be sitting in a judiciary, you may be a bureaucrat, you may be a military officer, you may be a politician, you may be a journalist. At the same time, are you keeping your Pakistani identity first, your human identity first? Are you keeping your political or religious affiliation first? And that is where the conflict occurs. And yes, Pakistan, of course, will have to create its lines in every aspect, in every area, because we are trying to get over a perversion of mental corruption which took—or which went on for three decades. And undoing that will take a lot of time, because of people who are still refusing to let go of this ideology, which the Taliban tries to legitimize.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Jibran Nasir, finally, how does U.S. relationship with Pakistan affect what’s going on, the longest war in U.S. history going on right next door in Afghanistan?

JIBRAN NASIR: I think U.S. can learn a lot of lessons in what is going on in Pakistan. U.S. itself is right now facing and seeing, because of social media, a lot incidents coming of racial violence and divisive [inaudible] ideology taking the main stage now. And it is, again, when certain humans assume that they have a God-given right to delegate themselves as a superior being and they can cause violence on somebody else who they do not consider able enough. So just like there’s a racial battle going on in America, there is a religious battle going on in Pakistan, where people from different sects and different factions of within Islam think that they are better, in a position to do—and they’re more virtuous and pious, and those who are infidels should be killed.

So there are lessons to learn. And just like U.S. is struggling, this is a human war. This is a war of ideology, which is supposed to be won by dialogue, by education reforms, by awareness. And methods which U.S. has been using, be it drone attacks or be it arbitrary measures like that, would not really do good—Pakistan much good. And U.S., of course, needed to—need to [inaudible] of the matter that we are dealing with humans here, we are dealing with ideologies here. The same measures that President Obama is at pains right now to implement in U.S. to get rid of racial violence in America, we are trying to implement in Pakistan to get rid of religious violence. But this ideology, of course, is going to take a long time before we get rid of it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Tariq Ali, could you talk about how the Pakistani state has responded to the attack and also what you think accounts for the rise of Islamic militancy in Pakistan?

TARIQ ALI: Well, the Pakistani state has responded to the attack as it always does. It has denounced it, and it has pledged that it will discover the people who ordered the attack, since the perpetrators have already been killed. And, no doubt, there will be an army—units will be sent out to try and find a few people. But that is not going to be sufficient. It is a long haul, this.

As for how these groups developed, there’s no doubt. We know it. They developed when the Soviet Union, as it then was, entered Afghanistan to try and save a pro-Soviet government, and the United States decided that this was their opportunity, as Brzezinski said, to get revenge for the defeat in Vietnam and teach the Russians a lesson they wouldn’t forget. So the United States poured in money into the region, armed religious groups, helped to create them. Brzezinski stood on the border with Afghanistan with religious leaders and said, “Go and wage the jihad.” That’s how it all started. The money created these groups. They did not rise spontaneously from below. They were created from above with the support of Washington, London and the local ISI and the military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq. That’s when they started.

Now, the fact that they were created in this way doesn’t mean that they’re still totally controlled by the military or the ISI. Many of these monsters have developed their own patterns of functioning. Some of them fight against the military, kill military officers, kill their children, etc., etc. The thing is: How can we bring this under control? In my opinion, two things are absolutely necessary. One is peace in Afghanistan. At whatever cost, with whatever government, we need to end. You know, Afghanistan has now been fighting wars, and subjected to wars, longer than the first and second World Wars put together. And you can only imagine the effect that leaves on the population. This is a appalling society.


TARIQ ALI: And that degree of appallingness is now existing inside Pakistan.

Secondly, while one can blame the United States—and I often do—there is no doubt, in my opinion, that the atmosphere created in Pakistan by successive military and civilian governments has made it impossible to challenge any of this. The fact that religious schools teach people violence—in many cases, not in every case—that they basically provide transmission belts, where young kids are taught lessons which lead them to become sympathetic to these groups, the fact that religiosity has now reached such a height that just a few days ago, almost at the same time as the attack in Charsadda near Peshawar, you had a young boy who had been incited by a mullah and told, “You committed some blasphemy,” and this boy went and cut off his own hand to repent—now, when you have a situation like this, we have to say that the fault lies largely within Pakistani society, which has failed to educate its people. It educates the elite, educates itself. For the children of the elite, there are great schools, great hospitals, in many parts of Pakistan. But there is nothing for the poor. There is nothing for the bulk of the population. So they’re very vulnerable—


TARIQ ALI: —to appeals from religious groups, because they have nothing else left.


TARIQ ALI: And so, a government in Pakistan—no government, neither the PPP nor Nawaz Sharif nor the military, has spent any money in creating an education system where everyone is educated, free of charge, by teachers.

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