The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, one of many al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups operating in the South Asian country, launched one of its more horrific attacks earlier today. A nine-man Taliban suicide assault team stormed a high school for the children of military personnel in the northwestern city of Peshawar. Armed with suicide vests and assault rifles, the squad fanned out across the school and executed everyone in its path. An estimated 145 people were killed, most of them students between the ages of 12 and 16.
One student described how the fighters screamed “Allahu Akbar” as they opened fire. A survivor recalled hearing one gunman say to another, “There are so many children beneath the benches; go and get them.”
Today’s attack seems especially heinous given that the Taliban intentionally targeted students, but it isn’t particularly unique: in recent years the Taliban has executed numerous suicide operations against soft targets such as churches, shrines, markets, hotels, and even hospitals. Thousands of civilians have been killed in such attacks since the Pakistani Taliban was formed in late 2006.
Pakistani military and government officials were quick to condemn today’s attack. And while the military and government have pursued the Taliban for waging war against the state, the Pakistani establishment is in many ways responsible for the group’s survival.
While the Pakistani government views the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan and other jihadist groups (such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) as “bad Taliban,” it treats other Taliban groups, such as the al-Qaeda-allied Haqqani Network, the Hafiz Gul Bahadar Group, and Lashkar-e-Taiba as state assets. In the words of the chief adviser to the prime minister on national security and foreign affairs, such groups are “not our problem.” These Taliban groups, the so-called “good Taliban,” only seek to wage jihad in Afghanistan or India – not overthrow the Pakistani regime – and thus offer Islamabad “strategic depth.”
This good-versus-evil view of the Taliban, however, is fatally flawed. The so-called good Taliban shelter and support the Pakistani Taliban as well as al Qaeda and other jihadist groups. Moreover, while the Pakistani military has launched an operation in the tribal North Waziristan area to root out the Taliban, the group would be unable to operate there without the assistance of the so-called good Taliban of the Haqqani Network.
Over the next several hours and days, Pakistani officials will clamor for the destruction of the Taliban in Pakistan, as they have done after similar atrocities in the past. But destroying the Pakistani Taliban is impossible until the leadership in Islamabad decides to end its double game of backing some jihadist groups while fighting others. Until the government decides to pursue the leaders of terrorist groups like the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba and dismantle their jihadist networks’ infrastructure, Pakistani civilians will continue pay for their leaders’ duplicity in blood.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Editor of the Long War Journal.