Jihadist terrorist attacks are, sadly, not a rarity these days. They are, in fact, a daily occurrence. So it takes a special kind of depravity to break through the numbness that repeated atrocities induce. The Pakistani Taliban have done just that by sending their gunmen into a military-run school for the children of Pakistani military personnel. The result was an eight-hour gun battle which apparently left 145 people dead, most of them school children. There are few parallels to such an atrocity beyond the Beslan school massacre in 2004 in which Chechen separatists struck a Russian school, leaving a reported 385 hostages dead, including 186 children.
It is hardly surprising, of course, that in both cases the perpetrators of these horrifying outrages were killing in the name of Islam. That is not because Islam is a religion uniquely conducive to this sort of evil. Recall that in the 17th century massacres every bit as vile were routinely carried out in Germany in the name of Christianity during the Thirty Years War. In more recent years Serb Orthodox extremists murdered Muslim Bosnians in similar fashion during the wars of Yugoslav succession in the early 1990s. And of course the most costly conflict of modern times, the civil war in Congo, has nothing to do with Islam–it is, rather, all about tribal antagonisms.
But there is no doubt that Islamism–not Islam, per se, but the extremist variant practiced by groups such as the Taliban and ISIS–has become the most important animating philosophy for terrorism today and Pakistan has established itself as one of the centers of this violent faith. For this development Pakistani leaders have no one to blame but themselves: They have been promoting violent Islamism as a state policy since the early 1980s when then-President Zia al Huq was supporting the most extreme elements of the Afghan mujahideen.
More recently Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency has emerged as one of the two leading state sponsors of terrorism in the world (the other being the Iranian Quds Force). It is directly responsible for a long string of atrocities carried out in Afghanistan and India by ISI proxies such as the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba. In short, the Pakistani state has a lot of blood on its hands–not only Indian and Afghan blood but a lot of American blood too, because a lot of Americans have died in Pakistani-sponsored attacks in Afghanistan. And not just in Afghanistan: There is also good cause to think the ISI consciously gave Osama bin Laden shelter in Pakistan after he had to leave Afghanistan in a hurry.
Unfortunately for Pakistan it cannot control where extremists strike. The old adage holds that if you keep snakes in your backyard you can expect to be bitten. Pakistan proves how true that is–and now it has been bitten especially hard by monsters who deliberately set out to kill children. True, these particular monsters are from the Pakistani Taliban (the TTP) which is not exactly the same group as the Afghan Taliban. But the two in fact share an ideology, among other things. Both, for instance, acknowledge Mullah Omar as their spiritual leader.
Sooner or later the Pakistani army must learn that it cannot fight some Islamist extremists while making common cause with others. My fear is that after decades of cooperation with these fanatics, the army itself may be so sympathetic to this extremist ideology that significant elements of it have essentially gone over to the enemy. Aside from an Iranian nuke, it is hard to imagine a scarier scenario in the world today than these Pakistani extremists-in-uniform getting access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
For too long America has tended to look away from the problem or pretended that Pakistan is really our friend. I don’t know what the solution is to this enormous menace, but at a minimum we need to stop lying to ourselves and recognize Pakistan for what it is: an incubator of evil.