x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Taliban's assault on education is inexcusable

The shooting of a 14-year-old schoolgirl reminds us again of the depths of Taliban brutality.

Behold the Pakistani Taliban's idea of political debate: a gunman stepped onto a school bus in the Swat Valley on Tuesday, asked the students to identify 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, and shot her three times.

Her offence: at age 11 she had started, under a pseudonym, a blog on which she wrote of her hope of becoming a doctor, and of how Taliban rule in Swat had closed girls' schools and otherwise subjugated girls and women. Eventually, after Pakistan's army summoned the resolution to break the Taliban's rule in the region, Malala's identity emerged, and she became a symbol - and therefore a target.

Yesterday she was reportedly stable after surgery in Peshawar. But even if she survives, will her hope endure? Attacks like this are intended not only to kill individuals but also to crush the very idea of resistance.

In Pakistan as in Afghanistan, the fanatics of the Taliban have shown over and over that they will stop at nothing in imposing their perverted version of Islam and their ignorant hatred for many aspects of modernity. They have banned polio vaccination in Pakistani tribal areas they control. They expel foreign NGOs. In August in Afghanistan they beheaded 17 party-goers for dancing. They routinely burn girls' schools.

Widespread public revulsion against this barbarism has not translated into sustained political will. Pakistan's leadership is still ambivalent, and therefore often seems paralysed, about extremists. Unless that changes, the prospects are ominous. After US and allied troops leave Afghanistan in 2014, Taliban violence can be expected only to increase, not just in Pakistan's tribal areas but also in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, which includes Swat, and beyond.

The UAE has played a leading role in trying to bring education and progress to northwestern Pakistan, especially education to women and girls. Food aid for the displaced, vaccine campaigns, water pumps, a whole hospital and 40 schools have been provided in the region, under the UAE Project to Assist Pakistan. But these efforts, like aid from other countries, will have been wasted if the Taliban succeeds in inflicting its pre-modern ideas.

By becoming a media personality, Malala Yousafzai made herself a target. We don't know the names of other school-age girls in Swat, but we know that each of them will be a target, one way or another, until Pakistan's authorities come to understand that there is no doing business with thugs who gun down schoolgirls.