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A tale of two universities

The similarities between the American University of Afghanistan and Bacha Khan University attacks only reinforce the unfriendly and distrustful relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan

A tale of two universities
Rescuing students after the attack: American University in Kabul.

The suicide attack on the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul on August 24 reminded one of the January 20, 2016 assault on the Bacha Khan University in Charsadda.

There were some similarities in the two attacks and the Afghan and Pakistan governments predictably reacted in almost the same manner as they blamed each other for failing to stop the attackers operating from their soil.

The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for the Kabul attack in which 13 persons, including seven students, a professor and five security personnel, were killed and dozens others were injured.

The Charsadda attack was claimed by the Pakistani Taliban. The death toll eventually rose to 22, mostly students but also including an assistant professor and some university support staff.

Pakistan alleged that the Bacha Khan University attack was planned and executed by Afghanistan-based militants. Pakistani officials said the four attackers had come from Afghanistan via the Torkham border and were sent by the attack’s mastermind Khalifa Umar Mansoor, the leader of the Tariq Afridi (Geedar) faction of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) who had earlier claimed responsibility for the horrible terrorist strike on the Army Public School Peshawar on December 16, 2014 in which 147 persons, including 132 schoolchildren, were killed and the subsequent one on the Pakistan Air Force camp at Badaber.

Afghanistan alleged that the attack on the American University in Kabul was planned in Pakistan. Afghan officials said the information from the three mobile phones SIMs recovered from the scene of the attack had been shared with Islamabad as part of the evidence that the attackers were in touch with their handlers in Pakistan.

Media reports said Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif called President Ashraf Ghani and told him that combing operations were undertaken and the information provided by the Afghan government was checked, but no evidence was found that the Kabul attack was planned in Pakistan. He pointed out that these SIMs were being operated by Afghan mobile phone companies and their signals also worked in Pakistan’s border areas.

Ashraf Ghani acknowledged the presence of Maulana Fazlullah in Afghanistan.

Ashraf Ghani acknowledged the presence of Maulana Fazlullah in Afghanistan.

Islamabad too had shared evidence with Kabul about some of the most horrendous terrorist attacks in Pakistan, including the ones on the Bacha Khan University and the Army Public School that originated in Afghanistan, but the Afghan government was in a state of denial. In fact, there was reluctance in Kabul to admit the presence of the masterminds of these attacks in Afghanistan until President Ashraf Ghani finally conceded this fact during his speech at the 5th Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad in December 2015 and claimed that Afghan forces had carried out 40 military operations against the militants, including the TTP head Maulana Fazlullah, in eastern Afghanistan.

Pakistan had managed to arrest the five facilitators of the attack on the Bacha Khan University, but it couldn’t go after the mastermind Khalifa Umar Mansoor, also known as Aurangzeb, Umar Naray and Umar Adezai, and his deputy Qari Zakir. It was left to the US to do the needful.

If the Afghans weren’t impressed by the evidence presented by Pakistan, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the Pakistanis also find the proof provided by Afghanistan as unconvincing. Their unfriendly and distrustful relations is the reason the two countries would continue to doubt each other’s intentions and claims.

Pakistan had managed to arrest the five facilitators of the attack on the Bacha Khan University, but it couldn’t go after the mastermind Khalifa Umar Mansoor, also known as Aurangzeb, Umar Naray and Umar Adezai, and his deputy Qari Zakir as they were safely based and entrenched in Afghanistan. Its expectation that the Afghan forces would get Khalifa Umar Mansoor was unrealistic in view of the strained Pak-Afghan relations.

Police searching students: Bacha Khan University.

Police searching students: Bacha Khan University.

It was left to the US to do the needful when its drones located and eliminated him in the Achin district in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province on July 10 this year.

It is going to be much harder for the Afghan government to identify, locate and kill the mastermind of the attack on the American University in case he happens to be in Pakistan as it is claiming. For this to happen, Kabul would have to seek Islamabad’s help. This may not happen until there is major improvement in Pak-Afghan relations so that they are able to do things together whether it is peacemaking or fighting terrorism.

When President Ghani visited the much damaged American University a few days after the attack, he tried to raise the morale of not only the students and teachers, but also the Afghan nation by declaring that Afghanistan is determined to destroy the terrorists and their backers and achieve peace and prosperity. As Pakistan is the perfect scapegoat in such situations in Afghanistan, he said Islamabad should share information about the attackers because the attack was planned on Pakistan’s soil.

Pakistan government functionaries had made almost similar comments in the wake of the attack on the Bacha Khan University, but many Afghans considered it as continuation of the usual blame-game between the two neighbouring countries.

The names of the two universities had something to do for being singled out for the attacks. Bacha Khan University is named after freedom-fighter Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who is fondly referred to as Bacha Khan and had opposed the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupying forces as long as he was alive. His family and their party, ANP, have been steadfast in criticising the Taliban, both Afghan and Pakistanis, and paid a heavy price in terms of targeted killing of party activists. The militants could have attacked another university, but the one associated with Bacha Khan became their preferred target.

As the name suggests, the American University was an obvious target of the militants, but its high-level security and secure location seem to have deterred the Afghan Taliban until now. For a decade, this US-style centre of liberal arts education for young, affluent Afghans remained safe. There were warning signs a few weeks before the attack on the university when two of its professors, an American and an Australian, were kidnapped and remain untraceable.

The timing of the two attacks was also interesting. The Bacha Khan University was attacked on the eve of a mushaira (poetry recital) planned in memory of Bacha Khan on his death anniversary. The American University was targeted as its 10th anniversary celebrations were getting underway.

Also, the masterminds of such attacks have made known on a number of occasions that they are against secular education and in favour of Islamic teachings at madrassas. As one of the masterminds, Khalifa Umar Mansoor declared after the attack on the Army Public School Peshawar, its students would grow up to join the armed forces and take up other professions in the service of the secular Pakistan government and fight the militants like him. For him, it was necessary to target the schools, colleges and universities that produced graduates who were likely to stand up to the militants.

Though terrorist attacks cause much pain and suffering, the institutions that are attacked recover in due course of time and resume work on the road to normalcy.

The Bacha Khan University reopened on February 15 three weeks after it was attacked. Students returned to classes instead of seeking admission elsewhere. The security at the university was beefed up by building walls, putting up barbed wire fencing, installing CCTV cameras and hiring more security guards.

The American University too would reopen as neither Washington nor Kabul would allow it to close down due to fear of another attack. It has been described as a lasting legacy of the US in faraway Afghanistan and as its head, who is an American, remarked there was no other option but to rebuild and restart.

Rahimullah Yusufzai

rahimullah yusufzai
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. He can be reached at [email protected]

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