Pakistan seeks Afghanistan’s help to track down Taliban leaders

Army chief travels to Kabul to discuss massacre in Peshawar school in which 148 died

A woman prays for Mohammed Anas, (14), who survived from an attack by Taliban gunmen on the Army Public School, as he lies on a hospital bed in Peshawar. Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

A woman prays for Mohammed Anas, (14), who survived from an attack by Taliban gunmen on the Army Public School, as he lies on a hospital bed in Peshawar. Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

 

Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, travelled to Afghanistan on Wednesday to seek help in locating the Pakistani Taliban commanders who orchestrated the massacre at a Peshawar school Tuesday in which 148 people, mostly schoolchildren, were killed.

Sharif and the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, flew to Kabul, the capital, for meetings with President Ashraf Ghani and General John F. Campbell, the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, the Pakistani military said.

The sudden trip came as Pakistanis united in horror and grief at Tuesday’s assault, in which Taliban gunmen stormed the Army Public School and Degree College, firing randomly, throwing grenades and lining up some students to be executed. Of the 148 fatalities, 132 were students.

Journalists were shown around the blood-splattered school buildings where the killings took place. Clothes, shoes and schoolbooks were scattered about the deserted hallways. One military officer wept as he accompanied a reporter around the scene.

The government declared three days of mourning, the national flag was lowered to half-staff on all official buildings, and prayer services were scheduled across the country.

Pakistan’s fractious military and political leaders also resolved to strike back against the Taliban.

For the army, that involved pointing to their sanctuary in Afghanistan. In its statement, the military said that Sharif had shared vital elements of intelligence with the Afghan president and US commander in Kabul.

Ghani assured the Pakistanis of his cooperation against the Taliban, the statement said. There was no immediate reaction from Afghan or US officials in Kabul.

A senior security official in Peshawar, speaking on the condition of anonymity before the meeting, said Pakistan possessed hard proof that Tuesday’s attack had been coordinated by Taliban commanders hiding on Afghan soil.

“The intel monitored the conversation between the attackers and their handler who was across the border during the siege,” the official said.

“The chief would be demanding action.”

Pakistan has long contended that the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Maulana Fazlullah, is hiding in the mountainous eastern Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. Last year, Afghan officials admitted to helping Fazlullah, largely as payback for Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban.

But relations between the two countries have visibly warmed since September, when Ghani came to power, and in recent weeks some reports have suggested that US airstrikes inside Afghanistan had targeted Pakistani Taliban leaders.

The other element of Pakistan’s militant problem, however, lies within - namely the military’s history of favouring some Islamist groups while fighting others. In Peshawar, Sharif said that policy was ending.

“We announce that there will be no differentiation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban,” he said.

The Pakistani Taliban, for their part, named the commander responsible for the attack as Omar Mansoor, the Taliban commander for Peshawar and Darra Adam Khel, a nearby tribal district known for its gunsmiths.

In a statement Wednesday, the militants released photos that showed six armed men, described as the attackers, wearing military fatigues and gripping assault rifles, standing alongside Mansoor.

A Taliban spokesman, Mohammed Khurasani, warned of further attacks unless the army ceased a six-month-old offensive against militants in the North Waziristan tribal district.

Pakistan’s leaders spent the early part of the day grieving for those killed on Tuesday.

Before travelling to Kabul, Sharif attended a service for victims at the army headquarters in Peshawar.

Prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who held a meeting with opposition political leaders in the city, announced that he was lifting a moratorium on the death penalty that has been in place since 2008.

Sitting grim-faced beside the prime minister was Imran Khan, the opposition leader who has spent the past four months trying to oust the prime minister over vote-rigging accusations. In response to the crisis, Khan has agreed to suspend his street campaign.

It was not clear, however, whether the Pakistani response would focus primarily on the Afghan sanctuary or whether it would, as analysts say is urgently needed, also examine the deep flaws in Pakistan’s own counterterrorism policy.

Pakistani security officials in Peshawar initially reported that there were nine attackers on Tuesday, but on Wednesday they dropped that figure to seven.

Khurasani, the Taliban spokesman, said the school had been selected for attack because it served predominantly children of military personnel.

“Our shura decided to target these enemies of Islam right in their homes so they can feel the pain of losing their children,” he said.

In Peshawar, all businesses and schools were closed, and long lines of vehicles were backed up on the roads, delayed by security checkpoints and barricades.

Banners expressing solidarity with the victims’ families and condemning the attack were displayed across the city’s main squares. Student organisations were planning to hold candlelight vigils later in the evening.

Security remained high in the city, which has a long history of Taliban attacks. Security officials barred vehicles without proper documentation from entering. Many residents visited relatives and friends who had lost their sons in the attack.

“I lost everything,” said Muhammad Rizwan, whose son Maher was shot to death, as he received condolences from visitors at his home. “Without my son, life has become meaningless for me,” he said.

New York Times