Terrorists struck Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province yet again when they killed nine students and others after three suicide attackers swarmed the Agriculture Directorate Training Institute on the University Road. The terrorists made the attack on the holy Muslim festival of Eid Milad un Nabi, the birthday of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). The casualties in the attack remained low because of two factors. First, most of the students had gone to their homes due to the long weekend. Secondly, the valiant efforts by the KP police officials, who immediately reached the spot and engaged the terrorists in a gun battle and prevented the terrorists from inflicting heavy damage. It may be mentioned that the responsibility of the attack was accepted by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
The context of the attack on the Agriculture Training Institute raises many questions. An important question is that whether the terrorists really wanted to kill students and as many of them as possible? Apparently that does not seem to be the case because of the small number of students present at the hostel at the time. The terrorists could have struck earlier when a larger number of students normally were present but due to stringent security measures by the KP government and police they could not give practical shape to their nefarious designs. Therefore, they struck the educational institute on the day when the security apparatus was concentrating on protecting rallies and meetings in connection with Eid Milad un Nabi in the city. Terrorists thought that although the number of students was small at the hostel facility, still by killing at least a couple of dozen they would send shock waves of fear and terror across the country. However, the calculations of the TTP terrorists were proven wrong by the valiant efforts of KP police whose officials reacted expeditiously to challenge the terrorists and deny them time and space to kill the students.
The writer is familiar with the place where the terrorist strike was made and, coincidently, he was very close to the locale at the time of the strike. Although the mainstream media has not pointed to that aspect of the intention of the terrorists, but they could have thought of attaching the nearby female nursing hostel of the Khyber Teaching Hospital and then staging a ghastly act of killing female nurses. Had this happened, it would have been as loathsome and devastating an attack as the December 2014 terrorist attack on the Army Public School, Peshawar. The investigating agencies must also probe the incident from this standpoint which could give them better understanding of the terrorists’ intentions and could lead to more vibrant security measures. Had the terrorists been able to enter the women’s nursing hostel located almost next to the Agriculture Training Institute and had killed even a few nurses this would have demoralized thousands of nurses across Pakistan. This, in turn, could have adversely affected the functioning of the health centres in the whole of Pakistan. The TTP terrorist would have justified the attack and killing of nurses on the pretext that they were working alongside men, which is forbidden by Shariah. From this line of argument the terrorists would have liked to get multiple advantages that of rationalizing their ghastly acts, sending ripples of fear across Pakistan in the female population, especially professional women.
It is important to note that the TTP has been experiencing wear and tear or factionalism since long. This has had seriously undercut the capacity of the group to stage large-scale terrorist attacks in the country. It may be mentioned that after the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) subsequently renamed Islamic State (IS) and founding of its Khorasan or South Asia branch in late 2014, important TTP militant commanders including its spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, and five regional emirs: Hafiz Dolat Khan from Kurram, Hafiz Saeed Khan from Orakzai, Maulana Gul Zaman from Khyber, Mufti Hassan Swati from Peshawar, and Khalid Mansoor from Hangu had left the TTP and joined the IS based in Afghanistan.
The recent attack on the Agriculture Training Institute could also be looked into against the backdrop of the threat of the TTP to strike educational institutions given early last year. The failure of the TTP to give a practical shape to its worrisome threat to attack educational institutions, particularly universities, in January, 2016, after it launched the deadly attack on Bacha Khan University in Charsadda also shows the weakness of the group. The threat to attack more educational institutions was aired by then an unknown Taliban commander, referred to as Umar Mansour by media channels, in a long video posted on social media soon after attack on the Bacha Khan University. In the video, Khalifa Umar Mansoor had said that the attack was just the start. The logic of attacking more educational institutions, according to Mansour, is to hit the “evil democratic” system at its base. He explained the rationality of attacking educational institutions by arguing that Pakistan’s educational institutions provide the future workforce for the military and the government – all of which work against the “will of God”. He had further argued: “Pakistan’s evil democratic system, its military and political leadership have these educational institutions as their nurseries. . . We have decided to target schools, colleges and universities from now on. We will demolish the foundation of this evil system.” In fact, this threat was made out of frustration and showed the weakness of the TTP in having to attack soft targets. Noticeably, Mansour was recently killed in a US drone strike in Afghanistan and the attack on the Agriculture Training Institute, owned by the TTP, could be an effort by the group to show that it still had the capability of striking and giving practical shape to the threats issued by its commanders, irrespective of the killing of the commander(s), who gave the threat.
It is important to note that the IS has been facing successive defeats in its heartland Iraq and Syria at the hands of national and international security forces and the group has also been coming under constant air strikes from the US in Afghanistan. In this context the TTP might have thought that it was the most opportune time to make a comeback. In order to demonstrate that it is back in business it has to stage significant attacks like the one it tried in Peshawar. There is no denying the fact that the TTP leadership is in Afghanistan and even Kabul admits to this. Pakistan agencies also reveal that the Peshawar attackers were in constant contact with their handlers in Afghanistan. Thus, it cannot be emphasized enough that Afghanistan, which has been blaming Pakistan for supporting the Taliban, instead of making up for its own incapacities and incompetence, could be behind the terrorist attacks in Pakistan, to give Pakistan a “taste of its own medicine,” as it were. In this connection, Pakistan’s revisiting of its Afghan policy, including more stringent measures to manage the border and sending back Afghan refugees, must be a priority.