ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — On city streets, on the airwaves and in the newspapers of a country numbed by years of bombings and assassinations, outrage against the Taliban is suddenly reaching a zenith. A 14-year-old girl lies critically wounded because she was bold enough to publicly demand an education.
It’s a moment Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership could channel into an all-out campaign against Islamic militants.
Can they seize the moment? Probably not.
Experts say there are too many obstacles. The enemy isn’t encamped on a hill, it is embedded in cells across the country, in sprawling cities and in mud-hut hamlets. Even if they had the will, neither the police nor the army has the wherewithal to scour every corner of the country.
When police nab suspected militants, convictions are rare. Police work is often sloppy, largely because investigators lack basic skills to build cases.
Just as important, there is no indication that hard-line clerics are ready to rethink the militant mind-set they have encouraged. Leaders of religious parties at a session of the parliament this week linked the attack on the teen to the CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Washington’s war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Yes, the shooting of Malala Yousafzai should be condemned, the clerics said, but it’s U.S. meddling in the region that turns law-abiding Pakistanis into radicals.
“Many of the religious parties are still speaking with forked tongues,” said Ayaz Amir, a lawmaker with the PML-N party and a political commentator. “There was hardly anyone even naming the Taliban.”
Taliban attacks on reformers are nothing new in Pakistan. The attack on Malala, however, hit Pakistanis hard, not just because of her gender and age, but because educating girls is such a basic cause.
In early 2009, the Taliban controlled much of her home area, the forested ridges and meadows of the Swat Valley, and imposed their own brutal brand of justice. Floggings were common and opponents were routinely beheaded, their mutilated bodies hung from street posts.
The Taliban banned girls from attending school. More than 200 schools were destroyed. Malala contributed diary entries to a blog published by the BBC Urdu Service in which she described atrocities committed by the Taliban and laid out in stark detail how its decrees made going to school perilous.
A Pakistani military offensive in the spring and summer of 2009 retook Swat, and Taliban fighters went into hiding, with many of them finding sanctuary in the eastern Afghanistan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan.
Malala became a national figure, winning Pakistan’s first National Peace Award for Youth and a nomination for an international children’s peace prize from a Dutch nongovernmental group.
But the Taliban did not forget. On Tuesday, she paid the price.
Two gunmen on a motorcycle pulled up to her school bus, climbed aboard and opened fire on Malala. A bullet pierced her temple and lodged in her neck. Two other girls were also shot; one was not seriously hurt and the other remains in critical condition. Malala underwent surgery to remove the bullet. On Friday, her condition was described as critical but stable.
The reaction of many Pakistanis parallels their outrage over a March 2009 video showing a Pakistani woman in Swat being flogged repeatedly by a Taliban fighter. Intense and unambiguous, it helped create the popular backing the military needed to launch its Swat offensive.
The attack on Malala is mobilizing the country in much the same way, said Raza Rumi, an analyst with the Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank.
“The national outrage and shock after the attack on Malala shows there is already a huge public opinion swing in Pakistan, where the focus has shifted from the narrative of appeasing the Taliban to fighting extremism in the country,” Rumi said. “It’s a kind of game-changer.”
Analysts say a key test will be whether the government launches an assault on the North Waziristan tribal area, a stronghold for the Pakistani Taliban along the Afghan border. It also serves as a base for pockets of Al Qaeda fighters and an affiliate of the Afghan Taliban known as the Haqqani network.
The United States has long urged Pakistan to target North Waziristan. The Pakistani army has talked of an offensive there, but has never followed through.
Islamabad’s rationale has been that its troops are stretched too thin, but many experts and officials in Washington believe the reluctance has more to do with the Pakistani government’s long-standing relationship with Haqqani leaders.
The attack on Malala has renewed calls for such an offensive.
“The time has come for the federal government and security forces to launch a full-scale offensive on the warmongers,” said Iftikhar Hussain, information minister for the province that includes Swat. “How long will our people be crying over the bodies of their loved ones?”
Experts say an offensive is unlikely. Pakistani leaders have always feared that moving against North Waziristan could trigger large-scale blowback in the form of suicide bombings and other terrorist acts in Pakistan’s major cities, where militants maintain a stealthy presence.
“The reaction might be furious in Pakistan’s mainland,” said Imtiaz Gul, author of “The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier,” a look at militancy in the nation’s tribal belt.
Militants are embedded throughout Pakistani society, from the country’s largest city, Karachi, to the mango groves and sugar cane fields of Punjab province. Law enforcement has neither the manpower nor the tools to root out terrorist cells in a systematic way. Police are poorly paid, poorly trained and lack even rudimentary investigative techniques.
“This is an issue that we face in many parts of the country, this creeping monster of militancy coming from various shades of the Taliban,” Gul said. “The challenge for the military, the civilian government and police is how to surveil all these groups and locate where they embed themselves.”
The clout of the hard-line Islamist community was evident with the 2011 assassination of Punjab provincial Gov. Salman Taseer, who spoke out against the country’s blasphemy law. The law makes it a crime to insult the prophet Muhammad, the Koran or the Islamic faith, but it is often exploited as a tool to repress minorities.
Taseer was gunned down by one of his own bodyguards, who confessed and is now on death row. After the shooting, fundamentalist clerics led thousands of demonstrators through the streets of major cities, applauding the bodyguard, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, with chants of “Salute to your bravery, Qadri!”
This week, when they have spoken about the attack on Malala, the clerics have focused on a much easier target in a country where anti-American sentiment runs sky-high: U.S. drone strikes.
During Friday prayers at Islamabad’s Red Mosque, site of a 2007 government siege against Islamic extremists that ended in more than 100 deaths, an imam belittled the girl for her admiration of President Obama and criticized the media for focusing so much attention on her.
“All the media is showing is the bleeding head of this child. Why don’t they show the dead bodies torn apart in drone attacks?” the imam said in his sermon.
Lawmaker Amir says the outrage sweeping Pakistan won’t amount to much unless hard-line clerics reverse themselves.
“I would have seen it as heartening if the religious parties said on Friday, ‘Today we will mount rallies and protests across the country, and we will grieve for Malala and condemn the Taliban,’” he said. “That is not happening.”
Special correspondent Nasir Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.