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Pakistan’s New Strategy to Beat the Taliban

6 minute read

Nearly a week after Pakistan’s worst-ever terrorist attack resulted in the death of 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar, the grief has turned to anger. As the Pakistan army pounds militant targets, the country’s politicians have achieved rare unity against the Taliban. For the first time, there are large protests outside mosques in Islamabad notorious for their pro-Taliban sympathies.

None of this should be surprising. No society can remain unmoved by the mass slaughter of their most vulnerable. That message appears to have finally registered with horror-hardened Pakistanis in a way that hasn’t been the case these past several years. “We are not making any differentiation,” Khawaja Muhammad Asif, the Defense Minister, said of the new approach. “All Taliban are bad Taliban.”

But many are right to question the durability of this new resolve. After all, in the past, Pakistan has seen assassinations, massacres of minorities, attacks on high-profile installations, even the seizure of large territory. Each time, there would be a bout of public outrage that would inevitably dissipate. Old arguments about whether the Taliban should be confronted or negotiated with would be revived.

This time, though, there is evidence of real change. Since the summer, the Pakistan military has been mounting an ambitious ground offensive in North Waziristan, the most hazardous of the country’s seven tribal areas. The armed forces had long resisted doing so out of fear of a backlash, despite repeated Western pressure. It took worsening action from the militants and a new army chief to make a difference.

The Peshawar massacre demonstrates that the militants are being hurt by the offensive. They feel the need to raise the human cost to Pakistanis of such military operations—and they did so in blood. But this time, the politicians aren’t balking. They have resolved that this war is their own, and that they can no longer afford to discriminate between so-called “good Taliban”—those who operate in Afghanistan—and the “bad Taliban” fighting the military in Pakistan.

The problem in Pakistan hasn’t been support for the Taliban. That exists and exists still, as the well-attended funerals of militants hanged in the aftermath attests. The enthusiasts have always been a minority. The problem is with those who don’t believe the Taliban exist, pleading that Muslims could never slaughter coreligionists, fingering India, Afghanistan, the U.S. and Israel instead. And there are those who still see the militants as a merely misguided group that would cease if violence if the state stopped attacking them. These apologists and equivocators have long enjoyed prestige and influence in the Pakistani media.

The Pakistani leadership is finally taking a more clear-eyed view of the militant menace. They aim to destroy not only the Taliban, but, Defense Minister Asif told me, extremism altogether. “Extremism of any kind, of thought, action, religious or political extremism is bad,” he said. “We have to eliminate them wherever we find them.”

As for those preachers continue to retain some affection for child-murderers, ordinary citizens are assailing them on the streets. On Monday, protesters gathered in five different cities across Pakistan to “reclaim their mosques” from Taliban sympathizers who abuse their pulpits to incite militant violence. They are calling on the police to arrest these imams, braving serious threats from militants.

There’s reason to be skeptical. As one Pakistani columnist sourly mused, there have been so many “last straws” in the struggle against the Taliban that there’s now a mountainous haystack. And the response so far has been characterized more by an immediate desire for vengeance than a long-term pursuit of justice. The execution of convicted militants gratifies widespread calls for revenge, and helps the government and military show people they are doing something.

But when facing an enemy that craves “martyrdom,” such measures hardly constitute a long-term strategy. For a state that has nurtured jihadists as instruments of official policy, and long encouraged its citizenry to look upon them as holy warriors, rolling back that history is a tremendous challenge.

In recent years, Pakistan has only ever fought militants when it felt it absolutely must. More often it has appeased them when it could. It has tolerated those that don’t attack the state directly. And it has steadily supported the ones who use its soil to launch attacks in Kashmir and Afghanistan. As some have quipped, it has been both “the fireman” and “the arsonist” of militancy.

Given the frailty of a state that can’t enforce basic laws, collect tax or provide electricity, it would be foolish to expect Pakistan to mount simultaneous assault on this bewildering array of scattered groups. But Pakistan does need to stop being the arsonist, though. In the short-term, the militants that pose the greatest threat— the Pakistani Taliban—will have to be a priority. As the Taliban are targeted, the state will also have a responsibility to protect its citizens at the same time. More massacres would severely strain the new consensus. The government will also have to overhaul its security structure. In the cities, and the largest province of Punjab, the sledgehammer of military action won’t be effective.

They will need civilian law-enforcement agencies that can act, but also prosecutors who can effectively bring culprits to justice and protect those who help the state in that task. One of the greatest scandals of this government has been the failure to prosecute the self-confessed killers of hundreds of Pakistani Shias, murdered by sectarian militants who regard them as infidels. The witnesses, judges, and prosecutors were too afraid of reprisals to act.

This won’t be a short war, either. Unlike the U.S. in Afghanistan, Pakistan cannot simply withdraw from the region. It has to stay— forever. In the long run, madrassas will have to be reformed, mosques cleared of extremist preachers, and militant groups defanged of their vast arsenals.

It will be a war whose end cannot be foreseen today. It is easy to sit in Western capitals and complain that Pakistan isn’t doing enough, as many argued last week. But from the point of view of a long traumatized population that is repeatedly forced to lower its children in early graves, the sentiment trespasses the boundaries of taste. Pakistanis don’t want pity or sympathy. At this crucial moment, they deserve the world’s solidarity.

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