Malala: A Tipping Point For Pakistan? – Analysis


By Sander Ruben Aarten

Last week’s assault on Malala Yousafzai in her hometown Mingora in Pakistan’s Swat valley shocked the world. In Pakistan, where killings, bombings and abductions happen on an almost daily basis, the attack on Malala sparked an unusual wave of public outrage. Pakistan’s political leaders, including those of the far-right-wing Islamist parties strongly condemned the attack terming it a cowardly act. The Haleemzai tribe of the Mohmand agency in Pakistan’s tribal areas have termed Malala as Fakhar-e-Pakhtoon (‘the Pride of the Pashtuns’) and denounced the assault stating that attacks on women are not only against Islam, but also against the Pashtun culture and tradition. Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, General Kayani, said that “[we] will refuse to bow for terror. We will fight, regardless of the cost we will prevail.” Meanwhile, Pakistan’s federal parliament is working on a resolution to make Malala an ‘ambassador for peace and education’ and to recognize her as a ‘daughter of Pakistan.’ This rare outburst of nation-wide solidarity has tempted some commentators to claim that ‘Malala’ may well represent a tipping point in Pakistan’s struggles against terrorism.

Malala Yousafzai
Malala Yousafzai

The emotions that the assault on Malala aroused remind of the shock wave that a video of a teenage girl being flogged by the Taliban in Swat in 2009 sent through Pakistan. Maulana Fazlullah is the brains behind these actions. He holds a notorious reputation that stems from 2007 to 2009 when his group, that is a part of the TTP (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban), was in effective control of the Swat valley. His shadow government imposed strict Islamic law by the power of the gun. Authority and loyalty were enforced by creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

The video was a catalyzing factor that led to a military campaign to put Swat back under government control. The campaign was both a success and a failure. It was a success because the Swat valley was indeed put back under Pakistani control, but the operations were unsuccessful in the sense that they did not fully eliminate the organization. In fact, Fazlullah managed to escape Pakistan.

Recently, the Pakistani Taliban revealed that it is not only operating from the North Waziristan agency in the tribal areas, but that it has safe havens in Afghanistan too – where they are out of reach of the Pakistani army. Fazlullah is believed to be using the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan to prepare attacks on military and civilian targets in Pakistan.

Even if Pakistan decided to go after the TTP, chances are that they will not succeed in defeating this organization. The TTP is part of a large conglomerate of extremist organizations that are based on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. These organizations are known to collectively run training camps, provide financial and logistical support and even human resources to each other. Also connected to this network are extremist organizations, such as the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban, that are covertly supported by Pakistan. Hence, the image of a hydra-headed evil appears. The problem of the TTP will not be solved by simply chopping off its head. It will grow back on, unless its body –the root problem- is targeted.

Stating that the assault on Malala would constitute a tipping point in Pakistan’s struggle against terrorist organizations presupposes that organizations such as the TTP have previously received substantial support of the Pakistani population. And indeed, some news reports claim that the TTP is supported by many Pakistanis because it stands up against the US and the Pakistani government that continues to give support to NATO in Afghanistan. While the argument in itself is correct (74% of Pakistanis call the US an enemy, and President Zardari has an approval rating of only 14%) this does not automatically mean that the TTP is popular among Pakistanis. A recent report published by the Pew Research Center demonstrates that the TTP is viewed positively by only 17% of the Pakistani population – a percentage that has remained virtually unchanged over the past years. What is more, the inhabitants of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Mingora is the capital of Swat district which is located in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province) generally tend to have much more unfavorable views of extremist organizations than Pakistanis from other parts of the country, most probably because this is one of the regions that suffered most from terrorism.

The claim that the attack on ‘Malala’ would represent a tipping point in Pakistan’s struggle against terrorism seems unsubstantiated. The fact that the Pakistani population speaks out so vehemently against terrorism is not new because of a supposed change of public opinion. Instead, it is remarkable for the very reason that it is a large public outcry. Back in 2009, such public protest stimulated the government and army to launch an operation to clear the Swat valley of insurgents. Today, however, it is unlikely that a military operation at a similar scale is launched, if at all. First, Fazlullah found refuge in Afghanistan. Second, they are only part of a much larger problem, which Pakistan indirectly helps to maintain through its support of organizations such as the Haqqani Network.

Sander Ruben Aarten
Research Intern, IPCS
E-mail: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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