Watch CBSN Live

Taliban school massacre: What kind of men kill children?

Taliban slaughters scores of students in Paki... 02:58

Jere Van Dyk, a consultant on Afghanistan and Pakistan to CBS, covered the Afghan - Soviet war in the 1980s for The New York Times. In 2008, he was kidnapped by the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas of Pakistan. He is the author of "Captive," Times Books, 2010.

In traditional Pashtun culture, thousands of years old, women and children were left untouched in warfare. No self-respecting man would harm a woman or a child. He would not be welcomed back to his village, and women would mock him. What kind of man kills women or children?

In June, under pressure from the U.S., which wants to leave Afghanistan and not worry about more attacks, the Pakistani Army went into the tribal areas along the Afghan border that are the headquarters of the Pakistani Taliban. The Pakistani Army is still there -- with planes, artillery, and tanks killing Taliban, but also women and children.

Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan,Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014. AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad

Before the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Pakistani Army never went into the tribal areas. Never. The first time was in 2003, again under pressure from the U.S.

The Taliban have few ways to strike back. This is asymmetric warfare. The Taliban are desperate, and will never give in. They are Pashtuns lashing out at the Punjabi Pakistani Army. This is an ethnic battle as well. The Punjabis are the largest ethnic group in Pakistan. About 80% of the Pakistani bureaucracy is Punjabi and it is the same for the Army. This argument only goes so far as the school, in Peshawar, along the border, where the Pashtuns live, probably had many Pashtun student who were children of the military.

The Pakistani Army was the first to attack a school when it attacked the Red Mosque, named for the color of its bricks, in Islamabad in 2007. Inside the Red Mosque was the largest girl's madrassa in Pakistan. The girls in the Red Mosque came from the tribal areas. They were Pashtuns. Punjabis started this, the Taliban will say, and they wanted revenge.

This was a suicide attack. In the 1980s Afghan-Soviet war there was not one suicide bombing. No Pashtun or Tajik would kill himself. It was forbidden in ancient tribal culture.

The first suicide bombing in the Afghan-Pakistan theater took place in Islamabad in November 1995, at the Egyptian Embassy. It was the work of Gamaa-i-Islamiya (The Islamic Group), a violent splinter group of the Muslim Brotherhood led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, head of al Qaeda. Zawahiri is believed to be living today somewhere in Pakistan.

The first proposed suicide bombing in the Middle East was in Alexandria, Egypt in 1954 against Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt; although no one volunteered. This, too, was organized by Gamaa-i-Islamiya, which was also involved in the 1981 murder of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

The Taliban began to employ suicide bombing after 1995, with the influx of Egyptian militants, and others who would create and become a part of al Qaeda.

Jalaladin Haqqani, a mujahideen leader with whom I have lived, today heads the dreaded Haqqani Network, the most lethal anti-Western insurgency group in the Tribal areas. But in the 1980s, he negotiated with the Afghan Communist Army rather than kill other Afghans, common then. He later became close to and was influenced by Arab militants.

Today, Haqqani has a unit which trains suicide bombers. What changed?

It began, many Arabs feel, with the terrible torture inflicted upon al-Zawahiri and others in Egyptian prisons. How can a man be Muslim and torture another Muslim? It is not possible. He is no longer Muslim. He is an apostate. The Pakistani Army -- under the thumb of the U.S. -- is killing fellow Muslims. Thus they are apostates, the thinking goes, and we can kill them.

When I was held by the Taliban in captivity in 2008, I had to listen for hours to Taliban suicide bomber recruitment tapes. The Taliban sang goodbye to their mothers; and they sang of their homeland, of their history, of poetry. One of the Taliban with me told me "If there is a fire, a father takes his child's hand and keeps him away from the fire. But I would love to have my children become suicide bombers."

A soldier escorts schoolchildren from the Army Public School that is under attack by Taliban gunmen in Peshawar, December 16, 2014. Taliban gunmen in Pakistan took hundreds of students and teachers hostage on Tuesday in a school in the northwestern city of Peshawar, military officials said. REUTERS/Khuram Parve

In their religious doctrine, they would be martyrs and go to paradise. The Taliban would also go to paradise. The Taliban in prison got emotional thinking of becoming such, and the damage they would inflect on the enemy, the invader.

It has become a glorious, romantic thing to be a suicide bomber. It is a wish for death. The children killed today will go to a better place. A cynical officer in Yemen, who is enjoying a longer life, said, "I can turn a poor young boy into a suicide bomber in one week." This, too, was once alien in Arab culture.

The culture has changed.

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia responded by spending billions of dollars backing the Mujahideen -- Afghan guerrillas willing to fight back. Thousands of Saudis, Yemenis, Egyptians, who were called Afghan Arabs, and other young Muslim men from around the world, went to Afghanistan to fight with the Mujahideen. Wahhabi missionaries from Saudi Arabia went also. Some officials in the Middle East today call the Taliban a Wahhabi army.

Wahhabism is an ultra-conservative sect of Sunni Islam named for an eighteenth-century preacher and scholar.

Jamel Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist in Afghanistan during that period, is now head of al-Arab News Channel and a columnist for al-Hayat. At a meeting in Bahrain recently, Khashoggi told me that there has been a major, and unexplored change in Muslim culture, one that is not discussed in the West.

It is "raw Wahhabism," to use his words; this change, this nihilism, this desperation, this destruction of Afghan-Pakistani Pashtun culture. And equally, the terrible tactics of ISIS, which are no different from the Wahhabis in 1802, when they destroyed the Imam Hussein Mosque in Karbala, which Tamerlane spared. And which ISIS now wants to attack again in Iraq.

The Taliban are insecure about their lack of formal education. This is one reason why they destroyed schools. A girl in traditional rural Pashtun culture will disappear into the family compound once she reaches puberty, never to be seen again by an outsider.

But the Taliban, in the 1990s, as they became exposed to the outside world, began to realize the importance of girl's education. There were more girls in school in Afghanistan under the Taliban than any time in history, although the Western media never reported this. There are, of course, more girls in school, by far, today than ever before.

In an example of self-defeating thinking, the Taliban, and segments of Pakistani culture, consider Malala Yousafzai to be pro-Western and anti-Pakistan, a tool of the West. Malala, of course, is the Pashtun girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for wanting to go to school, and who just received the Nobel Peace Prize for her courage and her stand on behalf of education.

Boko Haram, in Nigeria, means "no education"; or, more accurately, no Western education. The Army public-school children in Peshawar receive a good, Western-influenced education. There are many such good schools in Pakistan.

Today's school massacre harkens back to the massacre by Chechen rebels in 2004 in Beslan, North Ossetia, Russia. The Chechen leaders, who were trained in tribal areas of Pakistan, attacked a school -- taking over 1,000 hostages. Nearly 200 children were killed.

On Tuesday, the death toll for the Pakistan school massacre is 141 people - almost all of them students.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue