Ravi Velloor

Pakistan weeps over a tragedy too familiar

Soldiers yesterday entering the Army Public School which was attacked by Taleban gunmen in Peshawar. The gruesome attack took more than 140 lives - 132 of them children - marking a horrific moment even for a nation that is inured to extravagant viole
Soldiers yesterday entering the Army Public School which was attacked by Taleban gunmen in Peshawar. The gruesome attack took more than 140 lives - 132 of them children - marking a horrific moment even for a nation that is inured to extravagant violence. Pakistan was in mourning yesterday, as funerals (left) for students killed in Tuesday's Army Public School attack took place in Peshawar and schoolchildren in Amritsar (above) prayed for the victims while holding candles and placards.PHOTO: REUTERS PHOTOS: REUTERS
Soldiers yesterday entering the Army Public School which was attacked by Taleban gunmen in Peshawar. The gruesome attack took more than 140 lives - 132 of them children - marking a horrific moment even for a nation that is inured to extravagant viole
Soldiers yesterday entering the Army Public School which was attacked by Taleban gunmen in Peshawar. The gruesome attack took more than 140 lives - 132 of them children - marking a horrific moment even for a nation that is inured to extravagant violence. Pakistan was in mourning yesterday, as funerals (left) for students killed in Tuesday's Army Public School attack took place in Peshawar and schoolchildren in Amritsar (above) prayed for the victims while holding candles and placards.PHOTO: REUTERS PHOTOS: REUTERS
Soldiers yesterday entering the Army Public School which was attacked by Taleban gunmen in Peshawar. The gruesome attack took more than 140 lives - 132 of them children - marking a horrific moment even for a nation that is inured to extravagant viole
Soldiers yesterday entering the Army Public School which was attacked by Taleban gunmen in Peshawar. The gruesome attack took more than 140 lives - 132 of them children - marking a horrific moment even for a nation that is inured to extravagant violence. Pakistan was in mourning yesterday, as funerals (left) for students killed in Tuesday's Army Public School attack took place in Peshawar and schoolchildren in Amritsar (above) prayed for the victims while holding candles and placards.PHOTO: REUTERS PHOTOS: REUTERS

Time for country to tackle 'mainstream extremism' at its roots

Like the apples in the lush orchards of Pakistan's Khyber-Pakhtunwa province, winter is the time the cheeks of the young take on an especially rosy hue.

On Tuesday afternoon, however, the colour marking the faces of many of the slain and wounded children of the Army Public School in Peshawar, capital of Khyber-Pakhtunwa province, was the crimson hue of blood.

They were shot in the head mostly, some while at play and others in their classrooms, the gruesome tragedy taking more than 140 lives - 132 of them children - marking a horrific moment even for a nation that is inured to extravagant violence.

"The smaller the coffin, the heavier it is to carry," said Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, echoing the sentiments of 182 million Pakistanis.

How did it get this way?

The annals of South Asia's tortured history are replete with Frankenstein's monsters that have turned to stalk the shadows that once protected them.

India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was murdered by her Sikh bodyguards reacting to the Indian army's attack on the Golden Temple to put down the insurrection led by a militant Sikh preacher. He had earlier been secretly backed by her Congress party government to weaken the regional party ruling Punjab state.

In Sri Lanka, President Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated by the Tamil Tigers even after he had slipped them money and arms in resentment against the Indian Peace Keeping Force that had entered the island to control Tamil separatism on the invitation of his predecessor.

The Tigers, who subsequently also killed Mr Rajiv Gandhi, Indira's son who succeeded her as premier, was one of many Tamil groups that had once been trained by India to pressure Colombo against excessive US influence in Sri Lanka.

Likewise, Nepal's kings fed the Maoists to keep democratic forces at bay, then saw the rebels gain power and close down the monarchy in 2008.

But no nation has paid for its short-sightedness like Pakistan, where some 25,000 have perished in terror-related violence in the past 12 years.

The Pakistani deep state - its intelligence and security apparatus - has often used irregulars and "non-state actors" to further its strategic ends. This has held true since Pakistan's birth as an independent nation in 1947, when it immediately went to war with India over control of Kashmir.

In the mid-1980s, though, it reached a fever pitch when Islamabad colluded with the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States to channel funds and weapons to the Afghan mujahideen fighting to overthrow the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Once the larger goal was accomplished, rival ideologies and priorities surfaced.

Today, more than 30 militant groups operate on its soil, and Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was nailed by US Special Forces in Abbotabad, a garrison town in Khyber-Pakhtunwa.

Some, like the Lashkar-e- Taiba (LeT), the group that mounted the 2008 terror attack on Indian financial capital Mumbai, have indisputable state backing - its leader, Hafeez Saeed, travels openly in the country, delivering fiery speeches.

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency uses groups like LeT and the Afghan Taleban to further its strategic objectives in India and Afghanistan.

Others, not easily controlled and who have turned against the state, are hunted by the authorities. At the moment, at the top of that pile are the Pakistani Taleban, a group said to be influenced by Al-Qaeda and, more recently, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, the Pakistani Taleban called the school attack a reprisal for the military's move against its cadres.

Yet that is only one part of the story.

The other is one that Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousufzai recognised when the Taleban bullets went through her face: The crazed men know that no educated mother would encourage her son to be a suicide bomber. And that's bad for their business.

Pakistan's tragedy is that even as most of its Muslims are moderates, they've been increasingly on the back foot because a weakened state has not been able to guarantee their safety.

In January 2011, Mr Salman Taseer, the serving governor of the country's populous Punjab province, was murdered by his bodyguard, who resented Mr Taseer's opposition to a blasphemy law that would have unfairly condemned a Christian woman.

When the assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was produced in court, some lawyers showered rose petals on him. Mr Taseer's funeral was largely boycotted. The anti-terrorism court judge who sentenced Qadri to death had to flee the country.

Qadri remains in prison where, two months ago, he influenced the execution of another inmate by his jailor.

It also has not helped that some of the nation's most popular public figures, like cricket legend Imran Khan, try to keep on the right side of the militants by criticising the military's approach.

"The problem with Khan, for all of us, is as simple as it is ugly: He has mainstreamed extremism," respected columnist Cyril Almeida complained recently in the Dawn newspaper.

But Pakistan has no option but to attack this canker at its roots, if only to save itself.

As Pakistani scholar and former diplomat Hussain Haqqani commented yesterday, the attack in Peshawar shows the futility of attacking one group of militants while leaving others in place.

This week's savagery may thus be the catalyst for the Pakistani establishment to introspect deeply about the way ahead.

If he can win the cooperation of the deep state, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may just be the man for the job.

In early 2008, shortly after the assassination of Ms Benazir Bhutto, this writer stood at the corner of a stage where Mr Sharif, then attempting a comeback, was addressing an election rally in the town of Chakwal.

Around the grounds were water tanks on which hundreds had perched for a better view. Perimeter security was poor. Yet Mr Sharif stood on stage, shirt buttons undone to show he wore no bulletproof vest. It was an act of bravado and typical of the elan that Pakistanis, particularly in Punjab, tend to sport.

Mr Sharif now has to display the same machismo to take on the tormentors trying to wreck his nation.

velloor@sph.com.sg