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On The Pakistani Taliban: 'You Can't Do Politics ... Killing Children'


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Peshawar, Pakistan is a city we heard a lot about at the height of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. It sits close to the Afghan border and has been a greeting breeding ground for terrorism.

This past week, it suffered a horrific attack when Taliban militants entered a military-run school and killed at least 140 students and staff members. In response, the Pakistani military said Friday they're stepping up operations against insurgents and that they've already killed more than 60 militants in clashes near the border.

Michael Semple has spent a lot of time in this part of the world. He is now a visiting professor at Queen's University in Belfast. Welcome to the program.


MARTIN: Michael, can you start off by just giving us a sense of what this city is like when you have spent time there? It's a big place, right?

SEMPLE: It's a sprawling place, which embraces historic bazaars through to modern office blocks through to the military area left by the British through to the refugee camps and, you know, mud houses on the outskirts. You know, there's everything there in the cocktail that makes up Peshawar.

MARTIN: How has the U.S. war in Afghanistan over the past decade and more affected this city?

SEMPLE: The U.S. involvement sort of solidified the links between Peshawar and what happens across the border because you have these great convoys of trucks carrying goods for the U.S. Army deployed in Afghanistan. But also because you had so many people, not least the Afghan Taliban, hanging out around Peshawar as well.

MARTIN: The attack that happened on the military school in Peshawar this past week was carried out by the Pakistani Taliban. Can you explain how that group is different from the Taliban in Afghanistan? Where do their aims intersect and where do they diverge?

SEMPLE: The Pakistani Taliban claim to be loyal to the leader of the Afghan Taliban movement. However, they are somewhat different people from the Afghan Taliban. They have a different history, and I believe they have different aspirations.

The Afghan Taliban, during the second half of the 1990s, ran a government. And they aspire to get back to power in Kabul, or some of them might even be content with a share in power. And when you're in the business of sort of real, power politics running governments, you know about the art of political compromise. That's why the Afghan Taliban came out with a statement condemning the school attack because you can't do politics if you're seen to be killing children.

The Pakistani Taliban say that they are fighting to establish an Islamic state in Pakistan. In reality, they are not conceivably powerful enough to do that.

MARTIN: The chief of Pakistan's army flew to Kabul after the attack and met with the Afghan president. Do you think that's just symbolic political maneuver in the moment? Or is that a sign of real coordination, at least in the short term, when it comes to cracking down on an insurgency that threatens both countries?

SEMPLE: This dreadful attack came at an important, significant moment where simultaneously we've got the new government finding its way in Afghanistan. And we have Afghan security forces taking over from NATO and the U.S. People already knew that things were changing. And the Pakistan Army has had to confront the prospect that if the Afghan Taliban actually were to fight their way to power in Kabul, it might be a very bad thing for Pakistan.

So I believe it was extremely significant because really the missing element in Pakistan's counterterror strategy has been effective cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Indeed, groups like the Pakistani Taliban exploit the reluctance or inability of the two neighboring states to work with each other sincerely to find, you know, areas along the frontier which they can exploit as their safe havens.

MARTIN: Michael Semple is a visiting professor at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queens University in Belfast. Thank you so much for talking with us.

SEMPLE: Much welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.