ISLAMABAD — The terrorists were too early.
In the morning fog, four young killers cut through the fence and scaled a wall at the back of Bacha Khan University in the northwest Pakistan town of Charsadda. Some of them, possibly all of them, were in their teens, sent on a mission to kill as many people as they could.
Probably they had been told to expect crowds. Wednesday is the anniversary of the death in 1988, at the age of 97, of Khan Abdul Ghaffar “Basha” Khan, the renowned Pashtun leader of a nonviolent resistance movement against the British Raj.
His political legacy is carried by the Awami National Party (ANP) which is the only political party in Pakistan that has consistently opposed terrorism and has given political cover to counter-terror operations. That is why it has lost about 1,000 members, including some senior leaders, in terrorist attacks.
A major commemoration ceremony was being planned at the university that bears Khans name. But that was scheduled for the afternoon.
So the terrorists, armed with at least one explosive backpack and with AK-47 assault rifles, started shooting at any human target they could make out through the mist.
“We saw them open fire indiscriminately,” 24-year-old Abdul Omarzai, a student at the university, told The Daily Beast. “Our chemistry professor was the first target, killed on spot just as he was walking from the main door to his department.
“The militants were so young, one of them could hardly carry his AK-47,” said Omarzai. “They rushed towards the university hostel. It was a foggy day, but we could still hear them and see them,” said Omarzai, who took shelter behind a wall with friends. “I heard a couple of students calling for help. Probably that was their last call for help.”
One professor reportedly was armed and returned fire, helping some of the students escape. The campus security force, said to number about 50 officers, deployed quickly. So did the local police, eventually cornering the attackers and killing them.
Partly as a result, the death toll—19 people, not including the dead militants—was much lower than in the December 2014 attack on the Army Public School in nearby Peshawar where a seven-man commando sent by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) slaughtered 141 people, including 132 schoolchildren, some of them as young as 8.
Was this attack by the TTP as well? There were conflicting claims. The main organization said it had nothing to do with the operation; but another faction said it did.
Whoever was behind it, the attack may end up damaging the Pakistani Taliban more than their enemies.
I asked a former Afghan Taliban deputy minister for his opinion, and he said this looks like the TTP have turned into the worst sort of militants—that attacks on people who are “100 percent innocent” for no better reason than that they went to a university named for Bacha Khan is “just unacceptable.”
The Afghan suggested that the governments in Kabul and Islamabad should accommodate the Taliban with a political settlement. “If not, this war will take a turn toward the worst sort of revenge and torture.”
Another ex-Afghan Taliban deputy minister, Abdul Abdul Rahman Zahhin, told The Daily Beast, “I personally condemn such meaningless attacks.”
Professor Khadim Hussain said he was driving on his way to Bacha Khan University when he got a call and was told to get back to his home. “I lost about six close friends and students. Many good, brilliant students and professors were killed,” he said.
Sen. Afrasiab Khattak, a leader of the Awami National Party, which carries Bacha Khan’s political legacy, told The Daily Beast with marked understatement, this was a most “unfortunate incident.”
To the extent the attack demonstrates anything, it’s that Pakistan, with all its military power, cannot protect its citizens from the Taliban and has not been able to expel the TTP from North Waziristan even after two years of heavy military operations.
As Khattak pointed out, Islamabad announced a 20-point National Action Plan approved by an All Parties Conference soon after the gruesome 2014 attack on the Army Public School, but it was never implemented: banned organizations remain publicly active; so-called “good Taliban” are allowed to circulate freely. (The extensive presence of Afghan Taliban, who have a longstanding relationship with the Pakistani intelligence services, is an open secret).
NACTA , a national counter-terrorism body, was never activated. Reforms to religious schools were called for, but they remain unreformed, Khattack noted. Extremist organizations in Punjab are untouched. The “Federally Administered Tribal Areas,” FATA, along the Afghan border have not been brought into the main stream of Pakistani government and society. So it is hardly surprising, said Khattak, that the terrorists have been able to regroup and reorganize.