ISLAMABAD — The horrific shooting of a teenage girl by the Pakistani Taliban to silence her campaign for schooling for girls has forced a battered Pakistan to consider how it can tackle violent extremism after years of equivocation and toleration, analysts and politicians say.
Pakistanis, almost obsessively, have followed the news of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai since Taliban assailants shot her in the head a week ago. The shock has jolted Pakistanis to resolve that the country can no longer live with an organization and an ideology in its midst that would attack a girl who only wanted to be allowed to go to school – and then brazenly promise to hunt her down again if she survived.
“Malala is Pakistan right now. This is not the Taliban’s Pakistan. This is our Pakistan,” said Asma Shirazi, the host of a popular nightly political show. “We have created this problem. Now the fire has reached our house. This is a question of our survival.”
Pakistan President Asif Zardari even addressed the subject Tuesday at an economic summit in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. “The Taliban attack on the 14-year-old girl, who from the age of 11 was involved in the struggle for education for girls, is an attack on all girls in Pakistan, an attack on education, and on all civilized people,” he said.
Still, there is no consensus on whether fighting or talking is the answer to the militant challenge, leading to dangerous fractures in society. Thousands of Pakistanis have died in what people here call America’s “war on terror,” and many are reluctant to embrace a fresh military offensive against the Pakistani Taliban, which is based in North Waziristan along the border with Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, writing in the same newspaper, The News, a Pakistani daily, two columnists drew opposite conclusions, one pushing for immediate military action, the other opposed.
Maleeha Lodhi, a former ambassador to Washington, warned that “the window of public consent” for an operation against the Pakistani Taliban could close rapidly if not seized now. Ansar Abbasi, an influential conservative commentator, argued that such an operation would be a trap. “They (the West) want to use the poor girl’s case to further chaos and anarchy in Pakistan,” he said.
The military and the civilian government have given conflicting signals about whether an operation is being planned. With winter setting in, which would make conditions tough in the mountainous North Waziristan terrain, and an election due in the next six months, action would need to begin within weeks.
Malala was shot on Oct. 9 as she waited in a school van for the ride home. A gunman approached the van, asked who was Malala and then shot her when another schoolgirl pointed her out. This week, she was taken by air ambulance for treatment in England, where it is said that she will require weeks or even months of treatment and rehabilitation.
Malala had earned the Taliban’s enmity in 2009 when a diary she’d written chronicling life under brutal Taliban rule in her home district of Swat became the basis for a series of BBC news reports. A military operation subsequently reclaimed Swat, a former tourist resort that lies in northern Pakistan. The Taliban made it clear after Malala’s shooting that they had not forgotten her role, saying she deserved death because she promoted Western ways.
The rest of Pakistan, however, condemned the attack in an unprecedented moment of national outpouring and oneness. The tragedy forced the country to open its eyes to the nature of the Pakistani Taliban, which is more extreme and more closely linked to al Qaida, in operations and ideology, than the original Afghan Taliban.
Apparently seriously rattled by the public revulsion since the assault on the teenager, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, the coalition of jihadists known usually as the Pakistani Taliban, issued a new seven-page defense of its actions Tuesday, this time in the national language, Urdu. Previous defenses have been in English.
“For this espionage, infidels gave her (Malala) awards and rewards. And Islam orders killing of those who are spying for enemies,” the TTP said. “We targeted her because she would speak against the Taliban while sitting with shameless strangers and idealized the biggest enemy of Islam, Barack Obama.”
For years, Pakistan’s powerful military has supported jihadist groups as its proxy warriors in India and Afghanistan. In the 1980s, that policy was backed and funded by Washington as it helped to battle the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the Pakistani military, through its Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, continued to rely on the jihadists, though a 2007 military assault on a radical mosque in Islamabad that turned into a bloodbath, followed by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto months later, prompted made many Pakistanis begin to question the wisdom of that policy.
But zeal to confront the extremists soon dissipated then, and there are signs it may be doing so now.
Some religious conservatives even are trying to smear Malala, calling her an “American agent” and suggesting that the assassination bid was either a deliberate conspiracy to justify future military operations or that the event has somehow been “hijacked” by the West or pro-Western elements in Pakistan. As “proof” of this conspiracy, pictures have been circulated online of Malala meeting Richard Holbrooke, the late former U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
On Sunday, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a political party, staged a rally attended by thousands for Malala in the southern port of Karachi. Its leader, Altaf Hussain, speaking to the gathering by telephone from exile in London, said, in remarks directed at the military: “Move ahead and crush the Taliban and 180 million people will be standing behind you.”
“You are either with the Taliban or you are against them. There is no third option,” he said.
But such talk is not universal. On Tuesday, Imran Khan, a cricket superstar who’s turned populist politician and urges negotiations with the Taliban, warned at a news conference against military action.
“If, in anger at this tragedy, we do a military operation, our problems will only increase,” he said. “If military action were the solution, this issue would have been solved by now.”
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.