In recent weeks Pakistan has found itself once again caught in a familiar but no less terrifying nightmare as militants belonging to a faction of the Pakistani Taliban stormed the Bacha Khan University in Charsadda and killed 21 people a fortnight ago. Among the victims were 17 students.

The attack occurred just over a year after the same group mounted Pakistan’s worst ever terrorist atrocity, the APS school massacre in Peshawar in which 148 people were murdered including 132 children.

This fits into a broader global trend that has seen the number of terrorist atrocities on places of education soar in recent years. Amongst the most brutal examples are the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok Nigeria by members of Boko Haram in 2014 and the murder last year of nearly 150 people by the Somali based al-Shabab at a Kenyan university. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland, since 2004 terror attacks on educational institutes have reached record levels with Pakistan the worst affected country.

At the heart of the terrorists’ strategy are goals of undermining the legitimacy of the state by striking at one of its most pertinent symbols, inflicting the greatest amount of trauma and attacking a system of education which is seen as promoting western culture. The latter was alluded to as much through a video statement released by the Taliban splinter group which claimed responsibility for the Charsadda attack . “Pakistan’s evil democratic system, its military and political leadership have these educational institutions as their nurseries,” said their leader Khalifa Umar Mansoor.

Yet the cruel irony is that if Pakistan’s schools and colleges are nurseries of western values then they are also as much breeding grounds for religious fanaticism.

For all the strong emotional response attacks on educational institutions evoke – even in a country as battle-scarred as Pakistan the murder of the children is a pain felt like a hole in the heart – many including the authorities fail to see that it is these same centers of learning that are producing the terrorists and potential child-killers of tomorrow.

How? Well for starters the education system in Pakistan is in such a state of disrepair that it is completely ill-equipped to fulfill its necessary functions of broadening intellectual horizons, producing a skilled labour force and social enhancement. Ultimately this creates a situation where instead of acting as a counterweight to extremism Pakistan’s educational institutes are part of the problem by failing to prepare the students to become as productive members of a civil society. This in turn increases the chances of the country’s disenfranchised youth turning to terrorism in a misguided search for purpose and identity.

Much of this comes down to chronic government neglect. Alongside bureaucratic inefficiencies and corruption the malaise is best demonstrated by the degree of under-investment in schools. While most countries, including neighboring India, devote 4 percent of the national income for education, Pakistan allocates only 1.9 percent of its GDP ranking it among the worst eight offending countries in the world. 

No wonder then a significant number of government schools lack appropriate facilities, running water, toilets, electricity or even a boundary wall. Textbooks too are in short supply. Teachers are mostly under qualified, underpaid and given little incentive to perform well at their job.

Far too many do not have access even to this. Though Section 9 of the Constitution of Pakistan guarantees “free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five and sixteen years in such a manner as may be determined by law”, rarely are the laws enforced. According to a report published in 2014 under the title '25 Million Broken Promises' a staggering 13.7 million girls and 11.4 million boys between the 5-16 age bracket are out of school, 70 percent of whom have never received any sort of formal education. As of 2012, Pakistan stood behind only Nigeria for countries with the highest rate of out-of-school children. 

For the rich, the way out of this predicament are costly private schools accessible only to the elite. For those in the lower-middle to poor income bracket the vacuum is filled by religious seminaries.

Madrassas, as they are otherwise known, represent a vast network of ramshackle schools focused on Islamic learning often run on the philanthropy of murky foreign donors. With the promise of free education, food and lodging it is not difficult to see why they are such an attractive prospect for poorer families.

However, the instruction on offer – largely free of official oversight - is of significant concern. Focus is mainly on memorization of the Holy Quran and rigid interpretations of Islam, which some say lay the foundations of extremism in young minds or at the very least leave them with a constrained-worldview that breeds intolerance and exacerbates religious differences. This coupled with next to no practical education means that students of these seminaries are easily stirred by militant ideals.

But it is not just madrassas that are nurturing youth susceptible to radicalization. Public schools are also to blame. The national curriculum, Islamized during the rule of Gen. Zia ul-Haq and then co-opted by every government since, define Pakistan’s national identity almost exclusively in religious terms and derived in opposition to India.

Government sanctioned textbooks routinely deride the country’s religious minorities, promote anti-Indian and anti-Western sentiments and propagate false historical narratives of their own making. Teachers also reinforce biases through negative remarks aimed at Hindus, Christians and so on. In her April 2015 report for the United States Institute of Peace, researcher Madiha Afzal found that owing to the school curriculum Pakistani youth lacked the capacity for critical thought, were given to an array of intolerance and were likely to be sympathetic towards militant groups.

In the wake of the APS Massacre, the Pakistani government enacted a counter-terrorism strategy which was described by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as a ‘defining moment’ for the country. And yet one year on the Taliban insurgency has shown that the fight against extremism still has a long way to go. While the National Action Plan (NAP) might represent a short to medium-term solution to the problem more effective and sustainable answers need to be found for longer-term stability.

Within this effort education has to become a priority concern both in terms of improving standards and re-imagining the curriculum. The National Action Plan does address one of the primary issues – greater regulation of madrassas – however, little headway has been made in this regard, mainly due to strong opposition from religious parties. Until Pakistan tackles these issues more seriously and positions its educational institutes at the forefront of the fight against extremism, its children will continue to be frontline targets of terrorist attacks.