Taliban School Massacre Shows Its Weakness

A man lights candles in Karachi, Pakistan, to mourn the victims from the Army Public School in Peshawar, which was attacked by Taliban gunmen on December 16, 2014. The gunmen took hundreds of students and teachers hostage and killed scores of others. Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

The death of more than 130 people, mostly children, in an attack on an army-run school in Peshawar is the biggest death toll inflicted by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, or Pakistan Taliban) since it was founded in 2007. But it reflects weakness rather than strength.

While the attack on a school may be designed to harm the morale of Pakistan's military, which launched an offensive against the TTP earlier this year, a school in Peshawar is self-evidently not the most high-profile target in Pakistan. Over the years, the TTP has fallen back on attacks in Peshawar—close to its support base in the tribal areas—to demonstrate its continued vitality and relevance. These attacks serve to combat claims that it is increasingly factionalized, and to help in fund-raising, where it is in competition with a host of other Islamist groups, including ISIS.

While there are questions about the effectiveness of the Pakistan military's campaign against the TTP—many TTP members were thought to have slipped over the border into Afghanistan prior to the operation—over the past couple of years the TTP has replaced India as the No. 1 security concern for Pakistan's army. Earlier this month, Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif said that Pakistan's enemy "lives within us and looks like us." An increasing proportion of Pakistan's army has now undertaken military operations against the TTP.

However, the longer-standing complaint against Pakistan is that it picks and chooses between "good" and "bad" Taliban. The TTP—or factions thereof—are defined as bad because it targets the Pakistani state. Those who hold similar ideologies but operate outside Pakistan, in Afghanistan and India, or even target Shias within Pakistan are tolerated.

This partly reflects a hangover from the past, when Islamist groups in Kashmir and the Afghan Taliban were seen as useful instruments for Pakistan's foreign policy; the use of proxy forces by Pakistan goes back to its independence in 1947. It also reflects the weakness of civilian governments; many radical groups also undertake popular social functions such as health care, education and flood relief, which help to cover up the poor capabilities of the Pakistani state. In addition, there is a logic in Pakistan politicians' preferring that violence be displaced from Pakistan into Afghanistan, the path recently taken by the "Punjabi Taliban" in September this year.

Pakistan's ambivalence toward the Afghan Taliban has also stemmed from a lack of belief in the solidity of the Afghan state. Many in Pakistan doubted that Afghanistan would survive 2014's political, economic and military transitions. Given the fear that the Afghan Taliban could provide safe havens for the TTP in southern Afghanistan, it made sense to keep open contacts to try to allow some pressure to be exerted on the TTP on the Afghan side of the border.

These continued links in turn led Afghan intelligence to forge links with the Pakistan Taliban in a beggar-my-neighbor approach, further undermining regional trust. However, the election of Ashraf Ghani as president has led Afghanistan to shift course. While his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, was quick to blame Pakistan for incidents in Afghanistan, Ghani has taken the view that stability in Afghanistan requires cooperation rather than confrontation with Pakistan, and he recently accepted Pakistan's long-standing offer to help train Afghanistan's military.

But for Pakistan, meaningful cooperation would require Afghanistan to take action against Pakistan Taliban groups in Afghanistan. And earlier this month Afghan and U.S. troops did exactly that: In one drone, attack nine members of the TTP were killed in Kunar province.

In another sign of changing attitudes, in late November Pakistan took credit for targeting members of the Haqqani Network, a group linked to the Afghan Taliban. While the extent of its attack on the group cannot be verified, in the past the Haqqani Network appeared to have been spared the treatment meted out to the TTP and remained, in the words of U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen, "a veritable arm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency."

The attack in Peshawar is tragic and unlikely to be the last. But the region stands on the cusp of a potentially game-changing transformation in which the Afghan and Pakistan governments understand that their interests are best served working together rather than undermining each other.

That the TTP felt the need to launch its most deadly attack at this juncture is likely to reflect its concern about what this could mean.

Gareth Price is a senior research fellow, Asia programme, at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, in London.