The following piece, based on my extensive investigations, interviews and visits to a number of tribal regions in the North Western Frontier Province of Pakistan was published on Reuters’ AlertNet website today:
Civilians suffer as Pakistan army targets Taliban
01 Oct 2008 15:55:00 GMT
Written by: Mustafa Qadri
Reuters and AlertNet are not responsible for the content of this article or for any external internet sites. The views expressed are the author’s alone.
Photo by Mustafa Qadri
For civilians in Pakistan’s conflict-ridden tribal areas, the Taliban are not the only threat.
The Taliban insurgency along Pakistan’s tribal border with Afghanistan has fast turned into the key security concern for the United States.
The Taliban stands accused of committing several atrocities. In the former resort area of Swat, the Taliban has destroyed over a hundred girls schools this year alone.
Suicide attacks on major Pakistani cities have become a weekly occurrence, most recently during a gun battle at a hideout in Karachi last week.
The Sept. 20 Islamabad Marriot bombing, timed to coincide with President Asif Ali Zardari’s inaugural speech to parliament, killed up to 70 and injured hundreds more. It was perhaps the most ferocious Taliban attack to date.
Strict applications of sharia – or Islamic law – in areas controlled by the Taliban such as Waziristan have resulted in further casualties; several people found guilty of committing crimes have been executed, flogged or have had limbs amputated.
Less widely reported, however, is the increasing number of civilian casualties caused by Pakistan army operations.
Precise figures are difficult to obtain. Independent observers, mostly based on media reports, believe around 300 civilians have been killed by military operations in 2008.
Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious political party that provides humanitarian assistance to civilians in the conflict-ridden tribal agencies, estimates that around 1,500 civilians have been killed.
According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), around 310,000 people have been displaced from regions with a Taliban presence.
Analysts cite the inability to distinguish friend from foe as a key reason for the high civilian death toll.
“There are three main groups of fighters,” said Farrukh Saleem from the Centre for Research and Security Studies.
“First are the Taliban from Afghanistan. They, along with Al Qaeda, are using Pakistan as a sanctuary. Then there are the local, Pakistani Taliban who want to create their own Islamic state in Pakistan. The third are tribal militias who, due to local politics and considerations, have decided to support the Taliban.”
This third category of tribal militias changes its allegiances often depending upon the situation on the ground. Sometimes they fight alongside the Pakistan army. At other times they remain neutral.
Confusion over whom particular tribes support may have contributed to some of the civilian casualties caused by Pakistan army operations.
Yet some believe the Pakistan army deliberately targets civilians perceived to be sympathetic to the Taliban or local political groups.
That is certainly the sentiment among displaced people in camps throughout the North-West Frontier Province.
In the hamlet of Timagara, at the foothills of conflict-ridden Bajaur, displaced villagers live in basic camps without electricity or running water and limited access to food. They recount shocking stories of civilians being attacked by the Pakistan Army.
“On the second day of Ramadan (3 September) the bombardment started again,” recalled Haji Mohammad Noor Khan, a community elder from the Baramamond near Kunar province Afghanistan district of Bajaur.
At the beginning of the fasting month of Ramadan, on 2 September, Pakistan Adviser on Interior Rehman Malik announced a ceasefire of hostilities between the army and militants. Bajauri civilians fleeing the conflict were told it was safe to return to their homes.
But many who decided to make the journey back to their villages said they found themselves the target of Pakistan army mortars and helicopter gunships.
“It was very clear. They would bomb the civilians (and) not the suspected Taliban hideouts,” said Misael Khan, another village elder. “The Taliban have (clearly identifiable) utility vehicles, yet the army always targets our civilian buses. They cut our electricity but not the Taliban’s… Actually I think they are afraid of (attacking) them.”
Another man in the camp, who declined to be identified, said: “The bombardment left huge craters, each around 20 feet wide. People talk about (the violence in) Afghanistan and India, but what about us? We are being targeted like foreign invaders. We fear the Taliban too (but) not even they target civilians in this way.”
Displaced villagers in Peshawar cite Pakistan army attacks on civilians as the primary reason for their decision to leave.
“We were buying sweets for Eid when a helicopter came and fired at a car,” said Nasir Khan from Bajaur. “It was totally destroyed. I think (the blast) killed people in the market too… I didn’t wait to find out. I left yesterday evening with my family.”
The allegations have been corroborated by former Pakistan soldiers. One such soldier is 22 year old Farooq, who fought with the paramilitary Swat Scouts.
“We were ordered to fire mortars on unarmed civilians… I don’t know how many (civilians) I might have killed. It is still happening now,” he recalled, visibly shaken.
“They are killing men, women, children, everyone… I said, enough, I won’t kill anymore.”
The Pakistan army vehemently denies these allegations.
“Of course, such allegations are false,” said Pakistan Army spokesperson Lt-Col. Baseer Haider at the Pakistan Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi. “We do not target civilians. Our writ is to remove the extremists… and bring order.”
Yet the claims come at a time when Pakistan authorities are boasting they have killed 1,000 militants in September in one offensive alone near the Afghan border at Bajaur. It is unclear whether the figure includes civilians suspected of supporting pro-Taliban militias.
But even if civilians have not been deliberately targeted, authorities are struggling to cope with the humanitarian repercussions of the conflict. On 23 September, UNHCR announced that it needed $17 million to help those displaced by war and flooding in Pakistan’s conflict-ridden northwest.
On the same day as the UNCHR announcement, five people were killed by police in the Swat district of North-West Frontier Province during a series of protests against the lack of basic necessities like electricity and the inability of authorities to protect civilians and property from army and Taliban attacks.
The deaths prompted the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan to issue a press release demanding that authorities do more to safeguard civilians.
Those demands may be falling on deaf years. This weekend, local media carried reports that Swat was on the verge of complete civil disorder. Other tribal agencies may soon follow.
If that occurs, Pakistan, and the world, will have more than just religious extremists to