On August 28, 2014, an intelligence report was dispatched to the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) government (the chief secretary, the IG police, the IGFC et al) of a possible attack on an Army Public School (APS); (the chief minister of K-P, the executive head of the province, was away for the dharna in Islamabad). The report did not say which APS would be targeted and when, to the bad luck of the 142 who died on December 16 — 132 of them innocent children. The barbarism in the act shook the entire country. A bigger inhumane act is not known to have occurred in the annals of animalism that humans have tended to inflict on fellow beings, this being innocent blood aged anywhere from three to 15. Blood doesn’t come any younger or fresher than that. It is also hard to sweep away. It has this chemistry to congeal faster and stick longer.
What did the chief secretary (CS) and the IG police (IG) do with the information? Did, for example, the CS call up the IG to ask what measures the police will take to defend against the possibility? The IG would have then replied that since this was related to an APS, and all decisions on security were within the pale of the Corps Commander (CC) Peshawar, perhaps only the CC could say anything on the matter. That may then have triggered the need to check with the CC. Alas, it did not.
There is a long list of reasons why the chief secretaries and IGPs don’t carry that sense of responsibility any longer, and why they don’t check with the Corps Commanders. But that can come later. All assumed that since such reports normally emanate from the intelligence agencies, of them the premier ISI a most frequent source, it was only natural that the same report would have also gone to the CC; and since Corps Commanders are normally known to take on responsibilities on their shoulders even if they did not belong to them, it was probable that the CC Peshawar had a plan. Our descent into ignominy has been far faster than any rationality of cause and effect that we may wish to stick with at this moment. The question is of young blood, not one of hanging old bones.
It wasn’t a matter of saving the APS alone; it was more to do with the responsibility to protect the citizens of their city. Did ‘anyone’ have a plan? Assumptive logic got rudely shaken that fateful day of Peshawar’s fallen 142. Spillage of fresh blood hurts hard, very hard, but on a larger scale, what hurts the hardest is how callously we let the 142 go to the sword. The butchery is unpalatable regardless of whatever hue or sheen we put on it. There is only one word that explains it all: ‘dysfunctional’ — state, society and the system of governance.
What do you need to fight terror of this kind that was first planned, then penetrated, and finally executed? Assuming intelligence after August 28 went to sleep — which it must have because if army schools — and for that matter, any other school — were important, someone should have focused on filling in the gaps with missing information and reinforced the warning periodically, narrowing the scope, making those responsible shiver some. Clearly, this did not happen. Want to learn a lesson? Begin with this one first. If the consequences seem horrendous and dastardly, keep the intelligence going, and narrow the focus on more information to determine the probability of the threat materialising itself. Mere intimation isn’t enough as Peshawar’s 142 should inform our sensibility. Integrating intelligence may be ideal, and not impossible, but the moment asks for focused attention as a priority.
Timely and accurate intelligence is crucial but it rarely is perfect. What should then have been done by the Peshawar security establishment? They had available the army headquarters and the force; they had the provincial capital police and the associated LEAs, and a host of intelligence agencies quite seasoned in fighting an insurgency and terror wave that has had the entire province and Fata in its grip for the last decade and more. All that was needed was to determine the pool of resources available, organise those into a layered defence to detect the threat and make penetration impossible.
I imagine that a three-layered defence should have been formed around Peshawar. While most routes are picketed, these needed to be laterally interspersed with mobile patrols closing the gaps. This would have been the second innermost layer. The innermost security layer would constitute a mix of army, police and private security for each of the likely targets, more akin to protecting the city’s vulnerable points through local deployments. The two outer layers, however, can be the most critical.
As the perimeter travels out, the circumference becomes larger; which means there is more area to protect. This is where a mix again of local militias, available army deployments and rural police stations come handy. Their integrated deployment enables one to cover most avenues of ingress and importantly, helps monitor and add to intelligence and fight where threat is detected. This would have needed someone to plan such an integration of functions, ensure deployment and enunciate tasks for each, outlining the chain of reporting as well as decision-making. The absolutely outer perimeter is where the army is deployed and fights these groups.
What seemed missing is the required coordination and the integration of the interleafing layers of defence in Peshawar, if indeed such a course had already been chosen. This isn’t rocket science for anybody dealing with security; it is the integration and ‘joint-ness’ in planning and deployment that seems to be the terribly missing link. Nobody assumed responsibility, and nobody was in charge. This makes for a compelling case to nominate responsibility to fight terror formally to someone at various levels of administrative structures in the country. Else the cost can be horrendous.
This could have come from the prime minister’s 20-point plan; it instead seems more recommendatory than something that can be executed. It falls short on the need to identify responsibility. It could have ordered operative measures like establishing a joint task force of the all available assets at the district, division and the provincial levels. For the sake of viability and operational responsibility, these may have been placed under a dedicated army officer of compatible rank to act as the primary office of responsibility to integrate all elements necessary to fight terror within. It did not. For the moment, the challenge is to save innocent blood. The niceties of democracy can come later.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 27th, 2014.