In the hours following their attack on a school in Peshawar on December 16, Pakistani terrorist group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) issued a claim of responsibility and cited reprisal for the Pakistani military efforts to root out and destroy the group this past summer. Under the orders of Maulawi (Mullah) Fazlullah, gunmen disguised in Pakistani military uniforms traveled from room to room, identifying the children of Pakistani military personnel and slaughtering them in cold blood.
The final count was an astounding 145 people killed. A teacher that stood up valiantly, refusing to relinquish the location of specific children, was killed in horrific fashion—doused in gasoline, set alight, and burned alive in front of her young students. Some of the students attested to her heroism, stating that she quite simply saved lives by standing up to the attackers.
At least six militants entered the Pakistani school wearing security uniforms before massacring an estimated 132 people and injuring another. —(Lianna Brinded, International Business Times, December 16)
This past summer here at SOFREP and at Foreign Intrigue, I noted the ongoing offensive in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan and the effectiveness of the mission on the capacity of groups such as TTP to carry out attacks on Pakistani civilians and infrastructure. You can find those articles here:
- The Pakistani Military’s Fight Against Terrorism (June 10) (Foreign Intrigue)
- Offensive in the FATA (June 16) (Foreign Intrigue)
- Second Theater Matinee: Pakistan (SOFREP)
The attack in Peshawar has drawn comparisons to a number of other high-profile attacks on schools, including the siege in Beslan, North Ossetia in 2004. The Beslan School Hostage Crisis, carried out by Chechen and Ingush militants, was carried out in similar methodical fashion, with the attackers specifically targeting children. More than 1000 civilians were taken hostage. Russian Special Forces eventually stormed the school in an effort to free the hostages. The militants began executing children. In the attack, 385 people lost their lives. The comparison with the attack in Peshawar is notable:
The assault immediately brought back memories of the Beslan school hostage crisis in which more than 330 people, the majority of them children, were killed. The scale of the violence at the school in Beslan, a city in the North Caucasus republic of North Ossetia, Russia, and the fact that the attackers deliberately targeted young children had traumatised the Russian public and horrified the outside world. The siege in Beslan began on the morning of September 1, 2004, when at least 32 armed individuals stormed the school and took more than 1,000 hostages, including pupils in both primary and secondary grades and their teachers, as well as parents and relatives who had gathered to celebrate the opening day of the new school —(The Indian Express, December 16)
Fazlullah has repeatedly drawn the ire of the Pakistani public with several high-profile attacks on civilians. The most widely known of these attacks was the assassination attempt on school girl, Internet blogger, and activist Malala Yousafzai in October, 2012. Malala recovered and has gained notoriety as a proponent of educational opportunities for Pakistani girls—something TTP has expressed vehement opposition to. In the days after the attack, Internet bloggers and news sources rushed to remind the public of Fazlullah’s importance and his backstory:
To all those who don’t know who Radio Mullah is, he was the man behind the shooting of Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai. In her autobiography, “I Am Malala,” she has an entire chapter devoted to Fazlullah titled, “Radio Mullah,” the nickname he acquired when starting out as a pirate Islamist radio personality. The same Radio Mullah is now behind the Peshawar killings. After the death of Hakimullah Mehsud in a drone attack, Fazlullah was appointed as the new “Amir” (chief) of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan on 7 November, 2013. Radio Mullah is now the most-wanted terrorist in the world, and holds a reward of a whopping five Lakh dollars on his name.—(Gulte.com, December 16)
In the subsequent days, Pakistani, Afghan, and American leaders reportedly discussed his known whereabouts, his associations, and assessed the strategic value of cooperating to remove him from the battlefield. Coincidentally or not, in the past three weeks, reports originating from many different sources have indicated a renewed sense of urgency in targeting Fazlullah. Cooperation between the Pakistani and Afghan governments has reflected a reinvigorated sense of common purpose.
Even as the events unfolded in Peshawar this past Tuesday, reports of an unmanned aircraft strike in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan and the successful targeting of eight militants burgeoned hope for more effective targeting of insurgent leaders in the mountainous Afghan East and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan.
TTP characterized the attack on the school as a response to the Pakistani military operation known as Zarb-i-Azab this past summer and autumn. In the days after the attack, as the Pakistani military waged an almost relentless campaign to destroy as many members of TTP as they could locate, news sources further explained that Fazlullah’s havens in Nuristan and Kunar provinces, Afghanistan represent important terrain for TTP and prevent effective targeting missions of the leadership of the terrorist group:
Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul in the aftermath of the school attack in Peshawar which killed 149 people, mainly children.
General Sharif sought Ghani’s support in defeating the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
TTP leader Mullah Fazlullah is believed to be hiding in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, which borders Pakistan’s restive tribal areas.
Kunar has been the scene of fierce fighting between local forces and the Afghan Taliban for the past 10 days.
“Afghan security forces have launched a joint anti-militant operations in several parts of Dangam district of Kunar province,” Dawlat Waziri, deputy defence ministry spokesman, told AFP.—(The Express Tribune, December 23)
Throughout the past several years, Fazlullah has traversed the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan with regularity and impunity. Alternating between safe havens in both countries and guided by well-established support networks on both sides of the Durand Line, Fazlullah (also known as Radio Mullah for his early penchant to preach his hatred via radio station in Swat, Pakistan) has travelled the mountainous border area with comparative ease, hardly impeded by any security forces occupying key terrain in Kunar and Nuristan Provinces. This has likely begun to change.
The following is an excerpt from my October 2013 article outlining the strategic importance, whereabouts, and activity of Fazlullah—all gleaned from open-source information:
Fazlullah requires haven in Kunar and Nuristan due to Pakistani military targeting of him and his network in Swat Valley in recent years. Fazlullah is not likely to return to Pakistan permanently in the short-term as his security there are likely compromised and susceptible to Pakistani military attacks. He requires the mountainous border areas of Kunar and Nuristan for both safe harbor and control of TTP elements in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The more interesting theories include Pakistani government/military support (operational command, logistics, financing…) for Afghan Taliban elements that targeted Fazlullah. Conversely, reports have also emerged that demonstrate support by Afghan security elements for Pakistani insurgent groups such as TTP. —(Strange Days, Foreign Intrigue, October 11, 2013)
This past week, attacks in Kunar Province, the likely location of Fazlullah, increased in the eastern district of Dangam. Located just west of Fazlullah’s Pakistani havens in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Dangam is an incredibly difficult environment in which to sustain security forces. The mountainous district has been the site of an escalating number of attacks this past autumn. In response, the Afghan Army has launched operations designed to both repel the attacks plaguing its security checkpoints as well as augment the search for TTP personnel associated with Fazlullah and the groups that carried out the heinous attack on the school in Peshawar.
In conjunction with apparent efforts to cooperate with Pakistani forces to locate Fazlullah in Kunar and Nuristan, the Afghan Army launched a series of operations in Dangam to root out the attacks that have been targeting security checkpoints and Afghan Security Force (ANSF) positions in the remote district:
About 12 militants were killed and 13 others wounded after the army personnel made progress in the mountainous district, bordering Pakistan, the spokesman added.
The Taliban insurgent group has launched attacks on the district headquarters’ surrounding areas and villages over the past 10 days, in apparent coordinated efforts to take the control of the district, according to local residents.
The offensive is part of a larger operation as the army and border police forces are trying to reach the remote areas and support the local security forces as well as government-backed local militia or uprising fighters, Yousufzai said, adding “the army specialists are working to defuse roadside bombs and landmines recently planted by militants at the areas, as part of the operation.”
“The militants have blown up bridges, they planted landmines on the roads. Our government-backed uprising groups are fighting the Taliban in villages, but they are in lack of food and weapons,” a local leader Muzamen told Xinhua.
At least five security forces and about six local residents had been killed since clashes began, according to Muzamen.—(Xinhuanet, December 22)
In the coming weeks, any semblance of cooperation between the Afghan and Pakistani militaries in the hunt for Fazlullah and the rest of TTP leadership on both sides of the Durand Line will be welcome news for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) leadership in Afghanistan. The successful targeting of Fazlullah, especially if done under the auspices of an even tacitly joint mission between the two governments, could elicit wider cooperation on an entire spectrum of counterterrorism priorities for both countries.
At the moment, competing interests and the mistrust between the governments in Islamabad and Kabul inhibit the growth of trust that would form the foundation for future cooperation on efforts to erode and destroy the terrorist elements occupying and dominating large parts of the FATA and provinces in Afghanistan such as Kunar and Nuristan.
Afghanistan has agreed to start a special operation against TTP in its Kunar and Nuristan provinces with coordination of Pakistan armed forces and Afghanistan as well as Isaf have assured the army chief that they will eliminate hideouts of the militants involved in terror activities in Pakistan.
This was decided in a meeting on Tuesday when Afghan Army Chief Gen Sher Muhammad Karimi and Isaf Commander Gen John Campbell held a special sitting with Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif in GHQ Rawalpindi. The meeting is in the aftermath of COAS visit to Afghanistan where he shared ‘vital intelligence’ evidence about the Peshawar school massacre with both. —(Asif Bashir Chaudhry, The Nation, December 24)
Cooperation between the two militaries in successfully targeting the command structure and support network of TTP would represent a watershed moment in the battle against insurgencies in the region. While rumors of explicit support by the intelligence agencies of both countries abound, the public outrage growing in the wake of the attack in Peshawar could inspire, at least in the short term, a tacit coordination between the two governments to reduce the instability-producing ranks of TTP in Kunar, Nuristan, and Pakistan’s FATA. Chaudhry goes on to underline this idea:
In an unusual move, Chief of General Staff Afghan National Army (ANA) General Sher Muhammad Karimi and Isaf Commander General John Campbell travelled together to the garrison city for a meeting with the army chief.
According to sources, participants focused on coordinating counter-terrorism operations between Pakistan and Afghanistan especially in Pak-Afghan border area.
According to details, both the army chiefs agreed that their commanders would begin meeting immediately to further coordinate border area security operations.
The meeting was held amid reports of a significant development against TTP sanctuaries in Afghan provinces – Kunar and Nuristan.—(Asif Bashir Chaudhry, The Nation, December 24)
Cooperation between the two countries has apparently manifested, at least tacitly, in the ongoing battle in Kunar Province. Pakistani and Afghan media outlets have provided few details of the military missions in Kunar, but what has been made public reflects at least a limited amount of coordination between both the Pakistani military and its counterparts in Afghanistan:
Commanders of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (Isaf) reaffirmed on Tuesday their commitment to eliminating sanctuaries of Pakistani militants on Afghan soil.
The commitment was reiterated during a meeting of ANA Chief General Sher Mohammad Karimi and Isaf Commander General John Campbell with Pakistan’s Army Chief General Raheel Sharif at the General Headquarters.
The meeting took place after Afghan and Pakistani troops commenced long talked-about ‘coordinated operations’ against Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan’s sanctuaries in Kunar province. On the Pakistan side of the border, Pakistani troops had intensified surveillance for netting any of the militants fleeing the military action on the other side.—(Dawn.com, December 24)
The apparent willingness to find common ground, at least on the current mission in Kunar, underlines the ferocity of the fight and the strategic importance of Kunar and Nuristan in the Afghan east. A hotbed of insurgent activity for a decade, Kunar’s extraordinarily restrictive terrain, it’s localized and international insurgent nodes, and its strategic importance to al-Qaeda as well as the governments of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) countries, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, highlights a seemingly insurmountable effort to tamp down the massive, high-profile attacks that have marked the timeline of the war in Afghanistan since 2001. Kunar and Nuristan are essential terrain for both the insurgency and the governments. As such, the attacks in Dangam district, simultaneous with the TTP attack on the school in Peshawar, have catalyzed a willingness by Islamabad and Kabul to cooperate. At least for now.
“It (Kunar) was a coordinated operation. The Afghan side shared information with us and we took measures on our side,” a senior military official told Dawn without elaborating on the steps the Pakistani side took.
Pakistan and Afghanistan had been discussing the idea of joint operations for years, but finally agreed on it when Gen Raheel Sharif last week visited Kabul in the aftermath of Peshawar school carnage to demand action against hideouts of Pakistani militants in Kunar and other areas.
“There was a complete consensus at the meeting in GHQ on continuing the coordinated operations and intelligence sharing,” the official said, adding that one aspect of the meeting was to review the actions taken by the two countries against militants since the Peshawar tragedy.—(Dawn.com, December 24)
Whether the latent public appeals by both Pakistani and Afghan citizens for cooperation has found a basis of effective cooperation remains to be seen. The successful killing of Fazlullah would certainly burgeon the endeavor to find commonality of interest in destroying those that terrorize both Pakistani and Afghan civilians in the mountainous region the two countries share.
Shadowing and haunting the complicated problem of the myriad insurgency elements deeply entrenched throughout the remote regions of the Hindu Kush is the support of the intelligence services of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. As the war has dragged on and instability has expanded and evolved perhaps outside the direct control of both governments, a moment of understanding for just how expansive the problem has become may have only been obvious after such an attack as the one in Peshawar on December 16. The public outcry and the constituent demands on the governments may be just enough impetus to inspire at least temporary cooperation between Islamabad and Kabul to tackle the very urgent danger boiling in Eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan’s FATA.
(Featured image courtesy of presstv.ir)