Wrong Strategy? Pakistan Not Smart to Hit Civilians

February 22, 2010

Am I the only one that notices that press coverage of the conflict in northwestern Pakistan is completely dominated by a geopolitical and counterterrorism viewpoint? I was reminded of that fact again over the last few days with the spike in coverage following the Afghanistan offensive and the related arrests of key Taliban leaders in joint US-Pakistani operations.

An old women carrying her grandson fleeing from Maidan, northwest Pakistan to escape the fighting between the Taliban and government forces, 27 April 2009. (c) Amnesty International
An old women carrying her grandson fleeing from Maidan, northwest Pakistan to escape the fighting between the Taliban and government forces, 27 April 2009. (c) Amnesty International

The most recent example is an op-ed in yesterday’s Boston Globe, titled Pakistan smart to hit Taliban. Its author, Eric Rosenbach, does a good job of analyzing the most recent events and putting them in a broader (geopolitical, of course) perspective. Like many others, he ignores the fact that many of the military and intelligence operations he describes actually affect civilians on the ground, who are not connected to any of the armed insurgency groups. His piece, like most others, are filled with elegant words like “tactical” and, above all, “strategy” or “strategic” (in this case, these words are used 11 times, in the most creative alterations: “strategic game changer”, “strategic reassessment”, “change in strategic calculus”, and so on).

I am asking myself why nobody is writing about how the conflict in northwestern Pakistan—which last year alone displaced millions of people—affects the human rights of civilians on the ground? Is it that there are no stories available, or do we also have to start using strategically chosen words to get some attention? I thought I’d give it a try (feel free to follow):

In 2009, the government of Pakistan made the consequential decision and launched several major offensives to root out Taliban insurgents, who are responsible for many human rights abuses, including the attack of civilian targets like girls’ schools. This shift in strategy had major implications of millions of civilians who lived in the affected and highly strategic areas of Malakand Division (including Swat valley) and South Waziristan.

These offensives affected the core personal security interest of millions of people. To give a concrete example, learn about a man and his family who were heavily impacted by the government’s strategic reassessment. His tactical decision to flee the South Waziristan offensive followed the army’s decision to bomb his home town. However, it seems for tactical reasons, the army imposed restrictions on members of the Mehsud tribe (Some of the tribe members are involved in the senior leadership of the Pakistani Taliban). The specific acts deployed by the Pakistani army, like refusing to allow Mehsud members to use major roads in fleeing the conflict zone, could amount to collective punishment, which is strictly prohibited under international law.

The man described his thwarted strategy to reach relatives in the town of tanks. His family was part of a group of five families, constituting about 20 men, 15 children and 17 women with their luggage, who were traveling on donkeys.

We are not allowed to use the roads, the army does not allow any Mehsud to come to the road and use it…When we left our homes we took some food which we used the first two days and after that we had nothing at all and what ever was left we gave to the children, we only drank some tea and water. We had to spend the nights under the open sky. As we were not allowed to use the road we had to walk in the mountains…we lost our way twice.

When we reached Murtuza area we hired a pickup and wanted to go by road as the women and kids were very tired and it was very difficult for them to walk any more, but when we reached near Korr there was an army check post where we were stopped by the army soldiers. They asked us why we were on the road, and said that Mehsuds are not allowed on the road. They made us walk back and away from the road, they also abused the driver, who was not a Mehsud but was from the Marwat tribe. He was first beaten by the soldiers and then they told him not to drive anyone from Mehsud tribe.

When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled. This old saying probably best describes the state of human rights for civilians in northwestern Pakistan, who often get caught between the abuses by the Taliban, and the government’s often indiscriminate and disproportionate military operations. In order to change this, it would be too easy to only ask for a new approach by the Pakistani army. Equally important, Western main stream media has to make a strategic shift to provide more space for the human face of the conflict in northwestern Pakistan.