There are moments that jostle a nation beyond measure, that become a clarion call for salvation. The dastardly assault on the children of Army Public School Peshawar was a moment of collective sadness, collective mourning and collective resolve. We vowed to make the most vulnerable of us all, our children, the safest. But while we toiled tirelessly to secure our spaces initially, over the years, we have again become complacent. Or have we? We investigate where we have got ourselves in the last five years.

he Army Public School, Peshawar, of today is much like the APS Peshawar of December 15, 2014. The children are full of confidence, brimming with hope and aim at nothing short of excellence. It’s like the day of December 16, 2014 never dawned on the school. And how we wish it hadn’t. The national sentiment following the horrid tragedy was one of combined shock, outrage and angst; and there were widespread calls for speedy justice and foolproof security.Politics of the time took a turn for the better as well, with civil and military leadership putting their heads together to draft a future course of action. What was come up with was a comprehensive national security plan, dubbed the National Action Plan. It detailed how the security agencies and the civilian administration were to move ahead to thwart an incident like APS Peshawar in the future.

As a tangible part of the action plan, schools, colleges and universities were asked to shut down for several weeks. Visible measures like additional security guards, security cameras, bunkers and barriers, raising of boundary walls, securing the perimeter with barbed wires and walk through security gates were seen being put in place. Educational institutions turned into fortresses and stakeholders felt a little more content with measures taken and parents gradually felt reassured to begin sending their children back to studies once again.

Aftershocks

The feeling of being secure again was short-lived though. Hardly a month had passed since the first anniversary of the APS Peshawar attack when terror struck our education institutions again. And the attack came not far from Peshawar. The incident on January 20th, 2016 occurred in Charsadda at Bacha Khan University. Again we buried 22 of our precious ones and again, we felt really, really vulnerable.  The effectiveness of Nation Action Plan was put under the scrutiny again. The parents questioned how they were to educate their children in an atmosphere of constant fear and the students themselves wondered when was it their day to get martyred. 

Thankfully though, we have been spared of a mourning of the likes of APS and Bacha Khan University since. Some give credit to our security forces and their exemplary efforts ad sacrifices for the success of anti-terrorist offensives like Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Operation Raddul Fasaad. These offensives laid the grounds of cleansing the country of hundreds of terrorist sleeper cells spread across the country from which heinous operations like the APS attack were launched. The forces also toiled hard to clear the un-governed Tribal Areas of the presence of militants who regularly crossed over into Pakistan from neighboring badlands.  And while the military has been at the forefront of the ensuring safety of our schools, colleges and universities and must be credited for it, many believe Pakistan has simply been in the way of luck. 

Buried the Hatchet? 

So, five years on from the APS tragedy, have we really made the efforts needed to safely say that we and our children are safe again? We guess not. And our fears are shared by many who have been on the inside of security and defense apparatus of Pakistan. For his part, Air Marshall (R) Shahid Lateef believes the contentment with which we choose to ignore a matter as crucial as the safety of our educational institutions was simply appalling. Lateef told Academia Magazine that he was highly dissatisfied with the way security of citizens, especially children, had been approached in the country.

“If you remember, we came up with a comprehensive security master plan aptly titled the National Action Plan. What we have done to NAP is before all to see. It has been wasted by unnecessary politics. As far as I know, the security forces performed their part of the duties diligently, but targets set for the civilian administration have largely been missed,” he confided.  “There was much to be done by the civilian government, reforms and what not. We never got to know what happened to those tasks. We are never briefed about what was to be done and if it has been done?” the air force veteran lamented. He said the attitude of government had remained the same.

If you remember, we came up with a comprehensive security master plan aptly titled the National Action Plan. What we have done to NAP is before all to see. It has been wasted by unnecessary politics. As far as I know, the security forces performed their part of the duties diligently, but targets set for the civilian administration have largely been missed AM (R) Shahid Lateef

“When an emergency like the APS occurs, we get all emotional and act as if we have learned key lessons, but we never learn anything. What we need is constant monitoring of the actions under that were to be taken per NAP, debates in parliament over it as well as media discussions about the outcomes of the security plan. God forbid, if a tragedy strikes again, we will be left with nothing but to ponder upon on what we planned to do, but never did and begin a new blame game.” The concerns highlighted by AM (R) Lateef could not be closer to truth. December 16 is just another day in Pakistan’s life. Rather, it has become yet another reason to falsely depict our concern for the fallen. A day for news casters to dress up in APS uniforms and narrate tales and for politicians to claim how they cannot forget the tragedy, ever. Explaining what has actually been done in remembrance of the martyrs is hardly a necessity.

Some Respite

In conversation with Academia Magazine, senior defense analyst Lt Gen(R) Amjad Shoaib acknowledged the efforts made by both the civil and security agencies.  “We have learned certain lessons and I have been seeing various security arrangements in schools and institutions. The security measures are there .But I think that with the passage of time, we have relaxed. We certainly lack the strict monitoring and supervision that is required over the entire system round the clock, and that, naturally provides every possibility of an incident happening again,” Gen (R) Shoaib said.

We have learned certain lessons and I have been seeing various security arrangements in schools and institutions. The security measures are there .But I think that with the passage of time, we have relaxed. We certainly lack the strict monitoring and supervision that is required. Maj Gen (R) Amjad Shoaib

However, he did opine that the possibilities of attacks ad lessened. “What matters is the attitude of the entire nation I would say. When we see that things remain normal for a few years, people start relaxing, they do not pay the kind of attention needed or stay alert. When somebody has to strike, they naturally remain on the look out to see where they can find opportunities. However, if the arrangements are there, they may not strike for another 10.”Shedding light on the possible loopholes, Gen (R) Shoaib said security nowadays was dependent on modern technology and neglect on even a single person’s part could become a matter of life and death.  “When you are dependent on various systems, with the passage of time there is a reluctance on the part of the people (authorities) to ensure that things are kept perfect every minute of the day. This is how miscreants exploit the weaknesses within the system,” he added.

Just like Gen (R) Shoaib, Khawaja Khalid Farooq – former Punjab IGP and head of NACTA, also believes we have done well to control the menace of terrorism in Pakistan. In his conversation with Academia Magazine Farooq said there was no denying that the country’s massive counterterrorism operations, particularly in the Tribal Areas, had borne fruit.“According to data from South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), 2018 was one of the most peaceful years of the last decade in terms of militant attacks in Pakistan and resulting fatalities,” the former Punjab IGP said. “The country’s National Action Plan against extremists, which was devised after the 2014 school massacre, has significantly reduced violence in Pakistan.”

The urban networks of militant groups that used to operate from the country’s cities have been targeted mercilessly. Overall, progress is reflected in the form of significantly reduced terror incidents in Pakistan. Khawaja Khalid Farooq, Former Punjab IGP

 

“FATA, which was once considered a lawless region, has been largely cleared of miscreants and has been formally merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Normalcy has also returned to Karachi, Pakistan largest city, which was once described as the epicenter of terrorism. A string of counterterrorism operatns in Karachi has not only broken networks of various extremist groups, but also controlled sectarian and ethnic wars in the city,” Farooq added. The former head of NACTA was of the view that the province of Punjab had also witnessed some gains made. “The urban networks of militant groups that used to operate from the country’s cities have been targeted mercilessly. Overall, progress is reflected in the form of significantly reduced terror incidents in Pakistan.”

All Is Not Lost 

If Director General of South Asian Strategic Stability Institute Dr Maria Sultan is to be believed, there is a lot going on on the security front than that which meets the eye. According to Dr Maria, the government is in a far better position to prevent incidents like APS than ever before. “After the APS, we have gone through a major review, not only for providing security to the education institutions but also in terms of “how to do” perimeters defence, the security classification of the educational institutions. So this essentially means three or four things, we have gone for the

The likelihood of (terrorist) activities was much reduced in under grade 10 institutions, but looking at higher institutions, the government did expect administrations to be much more alert. Dr Maria Sultan

  1. Technical measures: means we have got now technical measures which are looking at the security of the educational institutions (such as cameras, safe city projects and so forth ),
  2. Having attached units to educational institutions,
  3. Adding to their physical security parameters,
  4.  Units in response training that have been given to students. So from the youngest of students (first grade and onwards) we have tried to instil training programs for them. In addition to that children have been given crisis training and also counter terrorism basics so that they can understand and can survive and that they are more organized if something happens.”

Dr Maria opined that the likelihood of (terrorist) activities was much reduced in under grade 10 institutions, but looking at higher institutions, the government did expect administrations to be much more alert.“Especially in the case of universities, it is the direct responsibility of the head of the institution to take care of security and defense parameters, they should be much more aware of children, of what goes on inside the hostels and also that they will be held responsible for any kind of terrorist activity.

Take Away

Considering the opinions and suggestions of experts, it can be stated, with caution of course, that we are not nearly there in terms of ensuring a safe space for our children. While it is laudable to see security measures put in place to secure the perimeters of educational institutions, the peripheries around them remain as vulnerable as ever. Students’ activities do not only exist inside the four walls of a school, college or university, the spaces around these installations are as much part of the student’s day as is the classroom or the playground. Every day, we see hundreds of students waiting to be picked up from outside of schools colleges and universities. We see children munching on corn cobs, toddlers enjoying ice creams and boys and girls lining up to get their hands on sweet potatoes from hundreds of thousands of peddlers looking to make a day’s living. 

These spaces exist outside the secured perimeters of educational institutions. These spaces are all but public and accessible by all. And these places remain unaccounted for. It is this space that is the weakest link in the strengthened chain of security the state has wrapped around our educational institutions. This is where our vulnerability lies. And unless we have put in place measures to make our children as safe outside the school as inside of it, we should be sleeping with one eye open. 

If we really have to sleep at all. 

 

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