The South Asia Channel

Civilians bear brunt of Pakistan’s war in the northwest

Civilians bear brunt of Pakistan’s war in the northwest

Pakistan’s war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the northwest is taking a tremendous toll on the local population.  The military’s killing of civilians, collective punishment of locals, and continued detention of thousands has produced an unprecedented level of animosity toward the federal government and security forces.

Last month, minority Hazaras in the restive southwestern city of Quetta used a new tactic to draw attention to the systematic killing of their community members by Sunni extremists.  They took the latest victims’ bodies to the center of the city and staged a sit-in, refusing to bury the bodies until the military took over security in the city. 

The tactic inspired locals in the northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Regions (FATA) to stage a similar protest in Peshawar, refusing to bury 18 of their dead until the Pakistani government looked into the latest killings by security forces.  Locals say Pakistani security forces killed the civilians during a house to house search on the night of January 15th in Bara, a district in the Khyber Agency of FATA, just south of Peshawar.  Thousands of local tribesmen held a jirga, and decided to take the bodies to Peshawar, where they sat in front of the state government building. When a member of the national parliament showed up to talk, the protesters attacked him, forcing him to flee.  The tribesmen wanted the military to admit they killed civilians, compensate families of the dead, and pull out of their areas.

The military agreed to investigate the killings and compensate the families.  But if the tribesmen wanted the military to leave the region, they would be collectively held responsible for any problems involving militants in the future.

Two days after the Bara killings, Pakistani helicopter gunships struck homes near Mir Ali, a town in North Waziristan, killing five civilians, including two women and two children.  According to locals, the Pakistani military carried out the attack in response to an IED that destroyed a tank and killed two soldiers in Miran Shah.  North Waziristan’s major tribes held a jirga and decided to observe a complete three day strike, demanding reparations and an end to civilian killings, and threatening to march on Islamabad. 

Safdar Dawar, a journalist from North Waziristan and head of the Tribal Union of Journalists, says the killings of civilians in Bara and Mir Ali are not unprecedented, but the widespread, well-organized response of the tribesmen has surprised many.

While the Hazara protest in Quetta drew massive media attention and the eventual ear of the national government, the hundreds of tribesman who protested in Peshawar were dispersed with batons and tear gas, the bodies of their family members forcibly buried by security forces.  The heavy-handed approach quickly drew condemnation from opposition political parties like the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Pakistan Muslim League (N), who have maintained for years that the war against militants in FATA has killed too many civilians and should be abandoned.  Pakhtuns living across the country have held rallies of their own in cities like Lahore and Karachi decrying the ongoing military offensives in the Pakhtun-dominated tribal areas of Pakistan’s northwest.

Nearly 700 people have been killed in Khyber Agency in 2012, making it the most violent agency in FATA.  (North Waziristan saw about 346 people killed in the same period, mostly from drones).  It has the bad luck of being a strategically important area, sitting next to Peshawar and hosting an important supply route for Afghanistan. 

Like Khyber, many parts of FATA have seen multiple military operations since 2002, when soldiers were first deployed to the region to support NATO activities across the border.  Since then, the Pakistani military has played a cat and mouse game with militants that has had a serious impact on locals.  The military often employs artillery, jets, and helicopters that pound suspected militants, but as the example of Mir Ali shows, they occasionally end up killing civilians too.  Millions of people have been forced to settle in other parts of the country, leaving many towns empty.  After carrying out its operations, the military usually announces it is safe for locals to return to their homes, but the conflict continues.  

In FATA, there is little legal recourse for civilians on the receiving end of the Pakistani military operations.  Instead of being treated as individuals, residents can legally be held accountable for the actions of others belonging to their tribe, a policy that dates back to British colonial times.  In 2011, the federal government announced a package that restricted collective punishment to males aged 16-65, and allowed for a military and civilian oversight board to review complaints of abuse, but human rights groups like Amnesty International say these measures have yet to be enacted, and would still allow the military to have the final say.  Under pressure to effectively combat militancy in the region, other legislation has given the military sweeping powers to detain individuals indefinitely.

South Waziristan was once the primary base for militant groups in Pakistan.  After several military operations, the area is one of the quietest.  But as an Amnesty International report form 2010 explains, the peace came at a heavy price.  While launching operations to retake the area from Taliban-aligned Mehsud tribesmen in 2009, the Pakistani government issued a blanket order to arrest any Mehsud and confiscate their property.  As hundreds of thousands tried to flee towns that were being shelled by the military, witnesses recount how Mehsud refugees were turned around at military checkpoints.  According to a government report, in a single month the military destroyed more than four thousand homes belonging to Mehsud tribesmen in South Waziristan.

Tribes that support the federal government have not fared much better.

Two years ago, the government recruited 250 local tribesmen to help fight Taliban militants in a village adjacent to Peshawar, but only gave them 87 rifles.  So in late December, 2012, when hundreds of Taliban from a neighboring district carried out a sophisticated attack on checkpoints in the area, the local recruits were easily defeated.  Two recruits were killed and twenty two taken hostage.  The military issued an ultimatum to the local Taliban militants: turn over the kidnapped men or we will punish the entire village.  Tribal elders said the situation was out of their hands, and a few days later twenty one bodies turned up.  The village was embargoed and a curfew was imposed that lasted weeks.  The military carried out several raids, destroying homes and detaining scores of men.  A month later, the government finally admitted they had not adequately equipped locals to defend themselves against the Taliban, and offered financial compensation to the victims’ families. 

Dawar, the journalist from North Waziristan, offers a whole list of ways the war has made life unbearable in FATA.  He says that residents of Bara have lived under a general curfew for three years.  A similar curfew has been imposed on Mehsuds in South Waziristan.  And in North Waziristan, there has been a long-running curfew every Saturday and Sunday.  Amnesty International has documented how curfews are often imposed in areas where there are ongoing military operations, making it difficult for civilians to leave the area. 

Perhaps the most egregious abuses in FATA involve extra-judicial detentions, torture, and the killing of suspected militants by security forces.  "As the state’s practices have moved away from large-scale military operations to sporadic clashes with armed groups over the last three years," a December 2012 report from Amnesty International explains, "the authorities’ attention has shifted to search operations resulting in thousands of arrests and detentions." 

It is difficult to even get a good estimate for the number of detainees in FATA.  Detainees are shuffled from one security agency to another, and many seem to be held in unofficial prisons – hotels and other civilian buildings seized by security forces.  In June 2012, the Peshawar High Court ordered the release of 1,035 detainees.  According to the 2012 Amnesty report, the government has provided the names of about 1,000 people it is keeping in detention.  But 2,000 cases of missing persons are still pending in the Peshawar High Court, brought by people suspecting their relatives are in government custody.  The Amnesty report details many cases where families only learned the fate of their missing relatives once they had been released, sometimes after being severely tortured or even killed by interrogators.

"The tribal areas have lost their leadership," Dawar explains.  Under the laws governing FATA, tribes appoint representatives called maliks to talk to the federal government.  "Thousands of maliks have been killed or forced to leave since 2001 in South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Bajaur, all over," Dawar says.  The federal government only extended voting rights to FATA in 1997, and just last year it allowed political parties to operate in the region.  Major political parties like the Pakistan People’s Party and the Awami National Party routinely see their representatives in FATA killed.  But without a constitutional amendment, future members of parliament will continue to be powerless.  Article 247 of the Pakistani constitution puts FATA entirely under the power of the President, saying "No act of Parliament shall apply to any federally administered tribal area or to any part thereof, unless the President so directs."

The Pakistani military continues to be the most trusted power in the region, ahead of the Pakistani government, the Taliban, or the United States.  But Dawar says tribal leaders are asking the military to leave their areas, and let them deal with the militants themselves.  When it comes to the Pakistani military, Dawar explains, "in many tribal areas, they have lost their confidence in it, and are now trying to regain it."

Tribesmen have often banded together to expel al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or other extremist groups from their land.  But they have also consistently claimed that the source of their current problems lies in Afghanistan and the U.S. invasion of 2001. 

"If you are asking about Americans," Dawar says, "100% [of the people] here are hating Americans.  They are thinking that this whole drama is from the side of America, because they came to Afghanistan.  That is why they are demanding America leave Afghanistan."

"The elders and the people recall the situation before 2001, [when] they had their own culture, unity, lashkars [militias], and peace committees," he explains, which they know were more effective than any tools from "these stakeholders in the Great Game."

Umar Farooq is an independent journalist based in the United States.  He is on twitter: @UmarFarooq_.