University attack casts new doubt on Pakistan anti-militant campaign

Wednesday's Taliban attack on a university in north-western Pakistan, which killed at least 20 people, highlights the country's challenges in tackling militancy.

Professor Abdul Haleem had just finished breakfast in his hostel room and was getting ready for class when gunshots rang out in the dense morning fog that covered the Bacha Khan University campus.

"I could hardly see but I heard students screaming and running around," Haleem said. "Before I could know anything, a security guard at the campus yelled that [we should] try to get out of the university."

The 35-year-old chemistry professor said he was lucky as he climbed over a nearby wall with several students and colleagues to escape.  

Others were not so lucky: At least 20 people were killed in the Wednesday attack, when Taliban gunmen stormed the university in Charsadda, located some 50 kilometres from Peshawar in the north-west.   

Of more than 3,500 students enrolled at the institution, about 1,000 were present on the campus at the time of attack, according to reports.

The assault created panic as parents rushed to the campus.

"When I heard of the attack, I felt like the ground beneath my feet had been pulled away," one father told broadcaster Geo TV. He said he had rushed to the university to find his daughter but was hindered by security forces.

"I still have not seen her, but I talked to one of her friends who said she is safe," the man said.

Wednesday's attack was claimed by Umar Mansoor, a Taliban spokesman and alleged mastermind of the Peshawar school attack that killed 136 students in December 2014.

Pakistan has waged a bloody military campaign on militants since the army-run school attack, with the army claiming that more than 3,500 militants have been killed and that their infrastructure has been destroyed.

The university assault now casts fresh doubt on the government's claim of "successes" against terrorism.

"The attack shows that the threat of militancy is not over despite the claims by officials," analyst Hussain Soherwordi said.

"Militants are still strong and capable of launching big attacks," Soherordi added. "It is time the army explains the real situation."

There are also questions about the military's tactics, including the way authorities expel Taliban militants from the lawless tribal region. Rebels can easily cross over the porous border to and from Afghanistan, Mansoor Mehsud of the Fata Research Center said.

"A majority of Pakistan Taliban have run across the border to Afghanistan after military operations," Mehsud said. "They can easily come back and launch attacks."

Pakistan's troubles began in 2001, when al-Qaeda-linked local rebels began fighting the Pakistani army.

The army had been sent into Pakistan's tribal region, comprised of seven districts, to tackle Taliban militants after NATO's invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

More than 55,000 people have been killed in the fighting with the insurgents, according Pakistan Interior Ministry officials.

Pakistan allegedly tolerated some of the militants' operation against Afghanistan at first. But national policy shifted to now target all those invovled in militancy, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif told Islamabad's parliament on Wednesday.

"In the past it was said that Pakistan was using militants as proxies and was conduit of terrorism," Asif said. "But everything has changed, and now we are playing a central role against militants to rid the entire region of the menace."

Under the new policy, Islamabad is cooperating with Kabul as part of four-way talks with the US and China to create peace in Afghanistan, Asif said.

But according to analyst Soherwordi, the militants will try to dilute the impact of the operation and cooperation with Afghanistan.

"The government and the security forces need to do more... More steps are needed to completely eliminate the threat of terrorism," Soherwordi said.

Researcher Mehsud said militants operating from Afghanistan are difficult to handle as they live in border areas where control of Kabul government is not strong and militants do not need many people to successfully operate in Pakistan.

"They do not need large number of people to launch such attacks. Even a handful of people can do a lot of damage," Mehsud said.

Pakistan's fine-tuning of its policy may not stop rebels from attacking soft targets like educational institutions, Soherwordi said.

Meanwhile, the government shows no sign of toning down its anti-militant rhetoric.

"The attack cannot shake our resolve and the operation will continue until militancy is over," Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid said Wednesday after visiting Bacha Khan University.

For some Pakistani citizens - including the man waiting to see his daughter outside the university - the government's spoken resolve may be too little, too late.

"We are fed up with terrorism," the father told Geo TV. "No place is safe as even mosques and universities are being attacked."

Last update: Wed, 20/01/2016 - 17:23
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