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Taliban's attacks on children jeopardise Pakistan’s future
What started as attacks against the education system has devolved into more personal attacks on youths, putting a whole generation at risk.
By Hasan Khan
ISLAMABAD – "Who shot Malala?" "Why was she targeted?" "What if somebody attacks our van?"
Parents around Pakistan were bombarded with such questions after a Taliban gunman shot Malala Yousafzai – a 15-year-old girl who gained fame for speaking out against the militants’ repressive view of education – and two of her schoolmates October 9 in Mingora, Swat. All three survived.
While Malala’s case has put the Taliban’s attacks on youth in the international spotlight, it is only one of the latest examples of the threat the militants pose to future generations of Pakistanis.
History of targeting children
The militant war against children dates to 2007.
"The Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) operation and missile strike on a religious seminary in Damadola, Bajaur Agency, turned the militants’ focus on attacking schools and students," said Brig. (ret.) Said Nazeer, a security analyst, referring to a July 2007 incident in which Pakistani troops, during the reign of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, raided a jihadist madrassa in Islamabad.
"They found a justification and made it part of their discourse accusing government of promoting secular education while targeting religious seminaries," Nazeer said.
In the ensuing years, militants have bombed thousands of schools across Pakistan, mostly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), in an effort to discourage education and to keep girls in their homes.
The trend of killing innocent children is a serious concern, Ajmal Wazir, commentator and senior leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, told Central Asia Online.
“Children are the future of Pakistan,” said Wazir. “Terrorising school-going children by targeting them means militants wanted to deprive the country of its future.”
Attacks don’t stop education
Pakistan has worked diligently not to let the Taliban’s assault on schools keep today’s children from obtaining an education.
Militants have bombed more than 2,000 educational facilities – mostly girls’ schools – in KP, according to Sardar Hussain Babak, provincial education minister, but about 90% have been repaired and officials plan more reconstruction.
Babak also pointed to a telling indicator that the militant efforts to dissuade parents from sending their children to school are in vain.
"It is encouraging that militants can bomb a school at night, but students and teachers sit to study in the open next morning on the debris," he said in describing many cases across the province.
"Yes, there is a fear among the students and teachers because militants are sending threatening letters and attacking them," Babak said, "but it has the least impact on morale of children and parents."
And in FATA, where militants have destroyed about 600 schools, parents also aren’t keeping their children out of school, federal minister for FATA and the northern region Shaukatullah Khan told Central Asia Online.
Indeed, the number of attacks has fallen recently as local tribes have taken on more responsibility for protecting the schools because, as he said, "Everybody wants to educate his children."
Militants were aiming to create fear among female students in Swat with the attack on Malala, Dr. Khadim Hussain, director of the Bacha Khan Education Foundation in Peshawar, said. Instead, "Malala turned out a symbol of resistance for female students against militants," he said.
Afghan issues are different
In Afghanistan, the situation is similar, especially in areas adjacent to the Pakistani Pashtun belt, where hundreds of schools have either been destroyed or students and teachers don’t attend for fear of the Taliban.
Afghanistan also has unique problems, such as poisonings of food or water on school premises.
The problems once dampened enthusiasm about sending children to school, but that trend is slowly changing, one Education Ministry official, who gave his name as Kamawal for security reasons, said.
"Unlike the past, today everybody wants his children – both male and female – to be educated," Kamawal said.
Personal attacks on children
More troubling, perhaps, is that recently the Taliban have changed tactics, going after children themselves, rather than after often-empty schoolhouses.
Whether they are planting bombs in toys or candy boxes or whether they are recruiting children as suicide bombers, the militants have made their attacks more personal. Such attacks have also drawn broader condemnation.
"The children are innocent in the eyes of God, and using and targeting children in such acts of violence are not only an enmity to Islam but are inhuman and gruesome," Hafiz Muhammad Tayab Koreshi, a religious scholar and a prayer leader at Masjid Mohabat Khan, told Central Asia Online not long after the July toy bombing.
Not only does Islam forbid killing human beings, Senator Maulana Rahat Hussain of Jamiat Ulma e Islam told Central Asia Online, "But the killing of children and women is discouraged even during wartime."