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One year on, ghosts of Peshawar school massacre still haunt Pakistan

Though the army stepped up military operations in Taliban-affected tribal areas, a comprehensive campaign against jihadi terrorists is sorely missing.

by Nayla Inayat

When Mohammad Yaseen, student of the Army Public School, Peshawar and a keen amateur photographer posted his photo on Facebook saying "Friends uplift the soul", it was about four friends enjoying their lunch break.

And when Talha Munir Paracha recreated the same photo posted by Yaseen, it became symbolic oh how a group of four friends was reduced to just two.

December 16, 2014: the day when 144 human beings, including 132 children of the Army Public School (APS), were killed by seven Taliban gunmen.

"It was the third lesson of the day, and an army doctor was giving a lecture on first aid in the school auditorium. My friends (Yaseen and Rafiq) and I decided to bunk the class and go to the football ground. But minutes later, our teacher asked us to go back to the auditorium and not miss the lecture," says 16-year-old Talha Munir Paracha.

The terrorists moved straight towards the auditorium where all students of class VIII, IX and X had gathered and they opened fire indiscriminately on the children. "Today, I wish I hadn't obeyed my teacher, then my friends would have still been alive," Paracha says.

He considers himself lucky that while trying to run from the ensuing panic as the gunmen opened fire, Pracha slipped on the floor and was buried under a pile of bodies belonging to his class fellows and teachers. "I don't remember how I got home, but what I remember is that I had blood of so many people dripping from my hands. It was the worst day of my life," he says.

Prompting worldwide condemnation, Pakistan's civilian government and military swore to fight on terror and root out extremism from the country. Attitudes changed and in order to eliminate terrorism Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, held an all-party conference in Peshawar and all political parties unanimously agreed on the 20-point National Action Plan. Subsequently, a seven-year moratorium on death penalties was lifted by the parliament.

"The National Action Plan has been used to target the establishment's political opponents such as Baloch nationalists and the Muttaihda Quami Movement, an ethnic political part in Karachi, not globally designated Jihadi terrorists like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) or Jaish-e-Muhammad. Even the end of moratorium on death penalty has resulted in more executions of non-terrorists than terrorists," says Husain Haqqani, former ambassador of Pakistan to the United States and director, (South and Central Asia) Hudson Institute.

Haqqani believes Pakistan's army stepped up military operations in the tribal areas after the APS Peshawar attack but that does not represent a comprehensive campaign against jihadi terrorists. "Operation Zarb-e-Azb has destroyed the terrorist base in North Waziristan and there have been some actions against sectarian terrorists. But there is no evidence that Pakistan has stopped making distinctions among terrorist groups and several terrorist groups, such as LeT and the Afghan Taliban, still flourish."

Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general and defence expert believes the army leadership has since been more resolute and consistent in pursuing the military operation in North Waziristan and other regions of the tribal area. It has succeeded in clearing the sanctuaries and TTP and other militant groups are on the run.

"The follow up actions that required rehabilitating the internally displaced people are still awaited. Operation in Karachi against pockets of militants too has been fairly successful, but the police force and the judicial system remains very weak," he says.

Pakistan is in a better place than before but similar steps have been taken and reversed before. "I am not ready to say we are now irreversibly on track to fighting, beating and marginalising terrorists. Their ideas are alive, their recruitment continues. The current efforts, though admirable, could be reversed under a future army chief or civilian government or by the sheer doggedness of jihadi groups," says Haqqani.

According to Amnesty International and the Justice Project, in Pakistan this year more than 300 people have been hanged. Only last week, four terrorists, termed as "abettors of APS attack", were hanged in the city of Kohat after army chief General Raheel Sharif signed their black warrants once the president rejected their clemency appeals.

Implementation on the National Action Plan has been weak. Apart from the establishment of military courts, there is scant progress in other areas. "Oversight of religious madrassas and mosques is practically non-existent. NACTA, the anti-terror institution has yet to start functioning and reforms of FATA are still awaited despite its urgency," says Masood.