The cowardly attack on hundreds of Pakistani schoolchildren by Taliban fighters in the city of Peshawar Tuesday has rightly drawn the condemnation of the world. The militants targeted a school where many members of Pakistan's officer corps send their children. By the time the attackers were routed from the building more than 140 students and teachers lay dead, with scores more wounded. What happened there can only be described as an atrocity committed by murderous criminals.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif angrily denounced the terrorists as "enemies of Pakistan, enemies of Islam and enemies of humanity" and vowed to intensify the military offensive his government launched in June against the insurgents. He immediately called a meeting of all the country's political parties to show the nation's determination to fight the extremists and to unite around his government's policy of pushing them out of their strongholds in North Waziristan along the porous Pakistani-Afghan border.
Horrific as the Peshawar attack was, it may have been as much a sign of the Taliban's desperation as it was a blow against Pakistan's government and military. The army has killed more than 1,800 insurgents over the past six months, significantly weakening the Taliban's ability to launch attacks in more populated regions of the country. The crackdown has also made it more difficult for the militants to recruit new fighters to hold the areas they already control in the face of stepped up government air and ground attacks.
A Taliban spokesman said the attack on the school was carried out in retaliation for the militants killed in the recent government offensive. But revenge is not a strategy. The killing of innocent schoolchildren may have brought untold suffering to the grieving families they left behind, but it did nothing to alter the fact that the momentum of the military struggle remains firmly on the government's side.
Mr. Sharif needs to exploit that advantage to bring his country's fractious political establishment together to keep the pressure up until the Taliban and its allies are defeated. For years Pakistani governments and the country's powerful military harbored an ambivalent attitude toward the Taliban, which they once viewed as a useful instrument for extending their influence into neighboring Afghanistan during the civil war that followed the withdrawal of Soviet combat forces from that country in 1989.
After the Afghan Taliban government was toppled by U.S.-backed forces after the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, its leadership fled to the lawless frontier bordering the two countries. But even then Pakistan's intelligence services continued to support the group covertly with money and arms.
That short-sighted policy backfired when Pakistan's former clients turned on it by launching an insurgency on its side of the border. The government's efforts to combat it were complicated moreover by the fact that the insurgency was supported by some extremist religious parties in Parliament and rogue elements of the intelligence services who actually favored the Pakistani Taliban goal of establishing Sharia law in the regions it controlled.
The tension generated by that odd-bedfellows arrangement not only made Pakistan an unreliable ally in the war on terror, it paralyzed the government's ability to defend itself against the monster it had created. Too late the country realized that if you lie down with dogs you'll get up with fleas.
The unconscionable attack on the Peshawar school may finally have shocked ordinary Pakistanis into a belated recognition that their on-again off-again relationship with a ruthless terrorist organization has been a dangerous gamble that now threatens their country's survival. There is nothing like the slaughter of innocents to concentrate the national mind, especially if those innocents are your own children.
The world can condemn the Taliban's crimes and offer Pakistan's leaders diplomatic and material support to help them address the challenges their country faces. But it is up to the Pakistani people themselves to realize they are now engaged in a life-and-death struggle that will determine not only their own fate but that of their children and grandchildren, and that temporizing in such a war is fatal. It is horrible indeed that so many innocents should have to die in order to drive that lesson home. But it has now become inescapable.