We were on our way to Guangzhou, China, via Bangkok on Dec 16, 2014. The moment we landed at Bangkok, my phone began ringing. TV channels had been chasing me for comments to what had begun unfolding at the Army Public School in Peshawar a couple of hours ago. The callers also gave me some gory details of what had been happening to students and their female teachers – heart-wrenching details of the bloodbath. With this attack, the enemy had literally reached the homes of military’s rank and file, their children and spouses being the prime target of this brazen termination mission.
When we eventually arrived in Guangzhou that afternoon, the death toll had crossed 140. We were all in a state of shock and disbelief, imagining how and why human beings (if terrorists qualify to be called so) could even think of putting down the innocent children.
How deeply it hurt even the top brass of the army was evident a few months later at the Martyr’s Day observed at the General Headquarters (GHQ) in September 2015.The ceremony was on in the presence of a couple of thousand guests. On one occasion, as the TV cameras moved to army chief General Raheel Sharif, it coincided with a lyrical tribute to the APS martyrs. One could see in the flash of that moment that General Sharif visibly cringed and shuddered upon hearing the initial words of the song, and this was enough to explain the impact the APS tragedy had had on the army itself.
The tragic incident is deeply itched in minds, particularly the families who lost their loved ones in the shockingly dramatic siege-and-kill raid by the terrorists. Not that this was the only one wherein children fell to terror, scores of similar attacks had left thousands of families grieved. Hundreds, if not thousands, of children suffered psycho traumas after having been caught in such attacks or those witnessed their family falling apart in suicide attacks.
But the APS attack basically had taken the assault on Pakistan to the homes of the very institution that has been at the center of all the good and bad happening in Pakistan. It was also credited with the creation of, or close relations with, non-state actors. But the APS qualitatively tore apart if ever there were a romance about the non-state actors and their perceived utility for political objectives.
General Kayani, his successors Gen Sharif and Gen Bajwa have all in different ways on different occasions conceded mistakes in the past on this count. The Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Operation Raddul Fassad in a way symbolized that admission of guilt. But at the same time, both operations also underscored the new realization within the security apparatus underpinned by a resolve against all shades of non-state actors.
At least four unmistakable developments underscore the change that Pakistan has undergone since the APS tragedy.
Statistics suggests that the TTP-led terror network today stands disintegrated and scattered, mostly across the border. Once known as terrorist havens, most no-go areas now belong to the state forces.
Secondly, fatalities from violence in year 2014 to October 2018 have seen a consistent decline from 55% in 2015 to 25% in 2016, and 9% in 2017. The figures for the year 2018 are considerably low too, according the Center for Research and Security Studies.
Thirdly, scoundrels like Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Sadiq Noor are on the run. US drones dispatched TTP and Daesh terrorists Hafiz Saeed Orakzai, Omar Naray, Mulla Nazir and Khalid Khan Sajna to hell once they escaped the Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Raddul Fassad.
Fourth, the ongoing construction of the fence on the border with Afghanistan buries forever the notion of ‘strategic depth’.Detractors often interpreted Pakistani policies as a blind perusal of strategic depth, realizing little that this idea loses its relevance when the majority of local population turns hostile. This is what has happened to Pakistan’s image in Afghanistan.
Fifth, despite the continued Afghan-US kinetic operations in the Pashtoon belt of Afghanistan against Taliban and Daesh – which are also killing ethnic Pashtoon non-combatants in eastern and southeastern Afghan territories – Pakistan has not only driven out or neutralized scores of terrorists and militants; it has also launched the mainstream of the disadvantaged Pashtoon territories once known as Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Although the integration process is typically beset with numerous administrative and legal procedures, yet the way for mainstreaming ex-FATA tribes has been cleared. The process is tardy but on track.
Lastly, civilian and military officials, however, will need to create space for a focal person with some authority for integration. This is the only way to defeat the obsolete Planning Commission regime that has retarded governance and management across Pakistan. Only an accelerated implementation of the integration plans can help alleviate grievances of the tribes living along the border.
In retrospect, the APS attack did serve as a catalyst for change in the outlook of the security establishment. It is still struggling with some bitter consequences of its past policies – such as the international financial squeeze and the shadow of Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Nothing, however, is difficult if all stakeholders can adopt a whole-of-government approach on foreign and domestic issues such as relations with Afghanistan or domestic challenges such as extremism.
One way to pay tribute to the thousands of lives since 2001 and the young souls that fell to terrorists will be development and expansion of soft power tools i.e. reform of critical governance sectors such as criminal justice system, civil services, financial sector reform as well as review of the curricula of private and public schools and madaris for a society anchored in critical thinking, and not emotions.