by Ayesha Alam (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 5, Ramadan, 1435)
Hundreds of thousands of tribesmen from Pakistan’s North Waziristan region have been displaced as a result of a massive bombing campaign by the army. Most refugees, however, have refused to go to camps set up by the government. Their plight is really grim.
After months of media reports about the Pakistani government courting the Taliban with negotiations and promises of truce, the mask has come off. Under pressure from the United States, the Pakistan Army started a massive bombing campaign in North Waziristan on June 11, unleashing hell and fury once more on its own territory. While the media is reporting on the fictitious “terrorists” that are supposedly being taken down, the reams of print are muffling the fear and terror of ordinary residents.
In Pakistan’s media reports on the strikes, the casualties have been identified as “foreign-born, Uzbek” militants who were operating from camps set up in North Waziristan. This talking point, released by the Pakistan Army, was widely circulated in mainstream media reports carried by Yahoo as well as CNN. Taking a leaf out of the “US handbook for the War on Terror,” this supports the narrative of a strong Pakistani military that is countering threats led by dangerous foreigners inside Pakistani territory. In years past, the blame has been pinned on India or Afghanistan; now, the paranoia is the same while the bogey bears a different stamp of features.
Air strikes have reportedly killed “more than 250 militants”—but the actual number far outstrips this perfunctory body count. Thousands of people have fled across the border into the Gorbaz district of Afghanistan’s Khost province and are being given food, aid and shelter there. Others have made their way to the town of Bannu, which is located 10 kilometres to the east of the border with North Waziristan tribal agency. Refugees from this latest bout of state-inflicted violence are anxiously awaiting news of family members left behind in North Waziristan. In a particularly cruel stroke of foreign policy, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif urged current Afghan President Hamid Karzai to seal the borders with Pakistan to prevent people from fleeing across the border. While the rationale is that this will trap the terrorists and prevent them from escaping the furious bombardment, this also leads to needless increase in civilian deaths.
In one particularly gruesome episode, 27 male members of a single family in Miranshah, the tribal capital, were shot and killed by the army in their house while another family member had gone to Bannu to find accommodation prior to relocating the family there. Even prominent respectable families have not been spared. Their homes have been attacked, men and women forced to line outside while their houses are “searched”, allegedly looking for terrorists. Shamsul Islam, son of Senator Saleh Shah from the tribal region, was shot and killed in Wana on June 19. Senator Shah is a member of the Jamiatul Ulama-e Islam (JUI) Fazlur Rahman.
Many families have complained that while the military gave them three days to leave their homes, a curfew was imposed preventing people from leaving their homes. In such circumstances, no transport is available and even if it is, they charge exorbitant prices that many can ill-afford.
Pakistani media reports have admitted the exodus of more than 270,000 people from North Waziristan, mainly to Bannu. Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) chairman Imran Khan has said that while the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province has been most severely affected, its provincial government was not even consulted about the military operation or provided any financial support to look after the internally displaced persons (IDP).
The US has issued carefully worded commendations to Pakistan’s military campaign in North Waziristan. The Pakistani government, ever starved for US approval, has taken note. Pakistan’s official Dawn newspaper carried a report on the statement made by US Assistant Secretary of Defence Kelly Magsamen on the North Waziristan campaign, which she delivered to a congressional panel that Pakistanis had deployed over 125,000 troops in Fata [Federally Administered Tribal Area] and was “increasingly gaining control over territory”.
“But at the end of the day, the situation in Fata is really a long-term governance challenge for Pakistan, in addition to a security challenge,” she added. “So we’re encouraged by some of the steps they are making. Is it totally adequate? No. But we do think they are on the right trajectory.”
Statements from UN officials and reports from the area contradict this picture. The UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards has noted the refugee agency is involved in helping to resettle and assist Pakistani refugees. Approximately 6,452 people from Pakistan have fled North Waziristan into the eastern parts of Afghanistan, seeking asylum in the districts of Gurboz, Khost (Matun), Tanni, Nadir Shah Kot and Mando Zai in Khost province, he observed at a Geneva briefing. “The newly arrived women, men and children have trekked the mountainous terrains across Pakistan’s border to seek safety,” he said. The constant flow of refugees, back and forth, between northern Pakistan and Afghanistan outlines the scale of the geopolitical tragedy enacted by the War on Terror, and the US’s enrollment of Pakistani and Afghan governments in wars and campaigns against their own citizens.
The distrust spread in Pakistan’s northern regions towards the Pakistani government is such that the refugee camps erected by the government for the people fleeing the targeted towns remain empty. Villagers prefer to seek refuge with relatives and acquaintances in neighboring villagers. The net effect of Pakistan’s war against its own civilians is that the people have entirely lost confidence in the country. There is no point in living in Pakistan," said Noor Daraz Khan, a resident of the village of Mosaki, when interviewed by Al Jazeera. The 45-year-old labourer, who now lives and works in Dubai. "All of my property there has been looted, my 10 cows have also been killed. It was even difficult to say the funeral prayers for my family, because there is shelling from the morning until night everyday."
Whether the vicious bombardment of air strikes has flushed the “Uzbek militants” out of Pakistan, it has tragically impacted residents, for whom the activities of daily life has become impossible. Muhammad Sajjad Khan, a 21-year-old university student from Mir Ali, said that the operation has "ruined" his education. "I had given two exams when the curfew was imposed in the area, and then the bombing started. I was unable to return home and stayed with friends for about eight days. On the eighth day, after not being able to find a vehicle I borrowed a motorcycle from a friend and left Mir Ali," he said in an interview given to Al-Jazeera.
The Pakistan Army has also slapped a curfew in the region, which is making it harder for civilians in the impacted towns to make it to safety. "When we set off to flee to Bannu [a neighbouring district], we were unable to find transportation. At first, we walked for three hours on foot, and then we rented a car at three times the regular rate," said Muhammad Naseem Khan, 50, a resident of Mir Ali. The net effect of both the drone strikes and Pakistan Army military campaigns in the region is to terrorize population centers at large. Given the fact that victimized, homeless people tend to join militias more readily, the strategy patently contradicts the stated aim of rooting out terror. In fact, the operation, named “Zarb-e-Azm,” after the legendary sword of the Prophet Muhammad (saws), has been heatedly debated in Pakistan’s Parliament, with many politicians arguing that it will only lead to swelling the ranks of militants and increase in militant activity targeting cities like Karachi and Islamabad.
In the short term, the strategy does encourage mass evacuation of regions and lands, which are being conscripted in the energy geography being charted by the US. North Waziristan must never be divorced from the construction of the controversial Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline transporting gas from the fabulous gasfields of Tajikstan, across Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. As it happens, the drone attacks and Pakistan military operations in northern Pakistan take place in the areas where TAPI is projected to pass through.
According to recent reports, as the Central Asian phase of TAPI nears completion the ground must be ready in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is infinitely more convenient to terrorize population centers to move out from the projected route of the pipeline (and of the military installations that will build alongside it to protect the flow of liquid gas).
Islamabad-based political analyst Syed Tariq Pirzada noted that what is in effect happening on the ground in North Waziristan is the outcome of the government declaring war against its own people. The irony is that this war is being waged on behalf of the energy security for another country. Pakistan’s only bonanza in carrying out this outsourcing of violence is civil instability as well as public anger and disenchantment with the state.
The policy clearly shows how not to go about state building and pacifying irate populations. If any country should have learned this lesson well, it would be Pakistan with its bitter experience in East Pakistan/Bangladesh and Balochistan, yet regrettably, little thought is given to the destructive consequences of indiscriminate use of force.