- By Elizabeth DickinsonElizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based American journalist and former assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy.
The bombing of the prominent Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar on Tuesday was, of course, meant to do damage. But on top of the immediate casualties, the psychological blow to Peshawar’s people, and the symbolic attack on U.S. involvement in Pakistan (the U.S. government is said to have been in talks to use the hotel as a consulate) — there’s a perhaps even more deadly consequence that will play out in the days ahead: The bombing might prevent help from getting to the near 3 million displaced people who have fled their homes in recent weeks. And that could be good news for Pakistan’s bad guys.
First a bit of background. When the Pakistani government began its offensive against Taliban militants in the Swat Valley last month, it warned civilians to get out of the way. And it’s not hard to see why. The military has used heavy artillery, air fire, and other military tactics to “flush out” the bad guys. It’s unclear if they’ve gotten any of the Taliban’s top leadership, but what they have gotten is a homegrown refugee crisis. “After Rwanda, this is the largest movement of people [in the world],” International Crisis Group analyst Samina Ahmed told me.
What’s unique about this refugee crisis is that 80 to 90 percent are not living in the camps the UNHCR is desperately trying to erect. They’re living in the homes of strangers. Ahmed, who was recently in the area, recounts 30 to 40 people staying in a single room. These hosts have opened their homes for now, but their resources won’t last forever. Ahmed believes that it will be at least a full year — after the winter passes — that the displaced will be able to return home. So, the hosts are going to need a lot of help caring for their unexpected guests.
Here’s where the Peshawar bombing comes into play. The Pearl Continental housed many U.N. agencies — including UNHCR. And just as the Islamabad bombings shut down the capital city this year, the Peshawar blast risks the same. If international staffs (understandably) go on high alert, they won’t be going out to the displaced camps and host family homes. They won’t be overseeing an aid operation on the scale that the situation demands — or at best, they will have to do so indirectly.
That’s very very bad news for many reasons — not least, Pakistan’s attempts to root out the Taliban. Ahmed and other analysts worry that the displaced will be a prime target for jihadi groups’ recruitment in coming months as anger, resentment, and desperation among the refugees grows. Absent international and government help, no doubt militants will fill the void. Says Ahmed, “The jihadi groups already have food, ambulances, medical stations — and they’re promising salvation all in one.”
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