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Mourning massacre, Pakistani military reinstates capital punishment

The Pakistani government is fast-tracking executions to showcase its new-found commitment to fighting terror, but actual results may not be in the cards.

A week after the Pakistani Taliban killed at least 132 children in a Peshawar school, the government and military are trying to appease an angry nation by instilling fear, using force and reinstating capital punishment. Taken together, the responses further skew civilian-military relations – fractious at the best of times – in favour of Pakistan's powerful military.

Even though there have been dozens of militant attacks in the past few years – including the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and an attempt on the life of Malala Yousafzai – no other act of terrorism has sparked such widespread fury. Some attacks didn't resonate because of geographical distance. Others generated no widespread sympathy because of the deep sectarian divides in the country and the widely held belief that the minority groups such as Ahmadi Muslims and Shiites, which have been repeatedly targeted by militant groups, are apostates.

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But the events of Peshawar sent an entire country into mourning and provided the government a rare opportunity to finally forge a consensus on militancy among its bitterly divided politicians and population. There was a sense of profound rage at the murder of innocent children. In Islamabad, protesters even gathered at the controversial Red Mosque – whose clerics and students had rebelled against the state in 2007 – to demand that their head cleric condemn the Peshawar attacks and abandon his support of militant groups.

A day after the attack, a sombre-looking Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani prime minister, said Pakistan would continue fighting terrorism and that it would no longer differentiate between "good and bad Taliban," alluding to a decades-old policy of the Pakistani military establishment to support some militant groups while battling others.

The same day, his office announced he was lifting a moratorium in place since 2008 on the death penalty.

After the moratorium on the death penalty was lifted, the Pakistan army chief swiftly signed off on execution orders for six men convicted in military courts. The men were hanged last weekend, despite a United Nations warning that feeding into a "cycle of revenge" could be counterproductive. However, many of the prisoners scheduled for execution may have nothing to do with the attack in Peshawar, or militant groups at all. Mr. Sharif has asked for executions to be fast-tracked after seven executions were stayed in by high courts.

The Peshawar attack has put the military firmly in the driver's seat in fashioning a response, even if Mr. Sharif is the head of the government.

"This is an old trend and it is being reinforced," Talat Masood, an analyst and retired army lieutenant general, said. "The civilians are showing such poor leadership, and in the past we have seen that space is taken up by either the military or militants."

Mr. Sharif has largely adhered to the military's strategy, but has gone a step further to include sectarian groups. Last week he declared that the "enemy who is hidden in our cities and villages" will be targeted. He specifically mentioned previous attacks on Shiites and Christians and said the government "would not differentiate between the terrorists and those protecting them."

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In his previous tenure as prime minister in the 1990s, Mr. Sharif was aggressive against home-grown militants such as the anti-Shiite Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. But the military establishment in recent years has beat back civilian efforts to take the lead in intelligence and counterterrorism.

The Pakistani military has long believed that politicians are incapable of taking on militant groups, and has instead pressed for special laws that would give it more powers to conduct raids and detain suspects.

While Mr. Sharif's words have made for cautious optimism that the government would go after groups it once supported or funded, a court recently sparked outrage by granting bail to the Lashkar-e-Taiba's Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the alleged plotter of the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai. This week, a high-profile Lashkar-e-Jhangvi leader, Malik Mohammad Ishaq, may be released after the government could not provide any evidence to keep him in custody.

Meanwhile, the military's campaign continues. It has also conducted air strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas, killing dozens of people it said are terrorists.

These strategies may be a way of showing that the state is in control and that despite an army-run school being attacked, the military can still fight back. But a military operation in the North Waziristan area – launched after a militant assault on the Karachi airport this June – has yet to stem militancy, as the recent attack in Peshawar has shown. Key leaders of the Pakistani Taliban have yet to be arrested or killed, though they have been able to carry out plots like the one in Peshawar successfully. Without a long-term counter-terrorism plan – or any clarity on whether Pakistani leaders have abandoned support for militant groups – there is little progress to be made.

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