The South Asia Channel

Pakistan: The human cost

By Anna Husarska There has been such expectation and speculation over Pakistan’s latest anti-Taliban campaign in South Waziristan that the start of major operations has the feel of something long overdue. Comment and reports by local and international media have focused on troop strength, tactics, and body counts. But those of us who have been ...

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By Anna Husarska

There has been such expectation and speculation over Pakistan's latest anti-Taliban campaign in South Waziristan that the start of major operations has the feel of something long overdue. Comment and reports by local and international media have focused on troop strength, tactics, and body counts.

By Anna Husarska

There has been such expectation and speculation over Pakistan’s latest anti-Taliban campaign in South Waziristan that the start of major operations has the feel of something long overdue. Comment and reports by local and international media have focused on troop strength, tactics, and body counts.

But those of us who have been working in humanitarian aid in the region recall the human and specifically civilian cost of similar operations in Pakistan’s north-western tribal areas exactly one year ago. Last month I met internally displaced persons from Bajaur and Mohmand tribal agencies (i.e. areas) still stuck in camps outside Peshawar. Those campaigns went largely unannounced and without remark and their real cost is difficult to estimate, as few if any humanitarian agencies have access to the tribal lands along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. But destruction was widespread, most people lost everything — their homes, their belongings, sometimes even their loved ones — and instability still reigns.

Even in the Swat Valley and Malakand Division, where the counterinsurgency campaign has been acclaimed and the rapid displacement and return of millions deemed “successful,” ground truth is hard to come by. North of Mingora, Swat’s main city, the valley remains unquiet. Humanitarian organizations find access difficult; unpredictable daily changes in curfews and checkpoints, and continuing actions against militants, can cut off aid access and mean many Swatis simply can’t get on with rebuilding their lives. While many went home voluntarily, others were coerced into returning from camps too early — and some have fled a second or even third time. So, as the armed forces’ long-anticipated offensive in South Waziristan advances, and hundreds of thousands flee, we who work side by side with Pakistani aid organizations in helping those driven from their homes by conflict are asking that the government and Pakistan’s international supporters pay equally fierce attention to the human cost.

Right now, the government and army are denying access in the main districts hosting displaced families to international humanitarian organizations with the biggest capacity to deliver life-saving assistance. Local government and local aid groups are struggling with the sheer weight of human necessities — they need international humanitarian support. In the end, this conflict will be best judged not on the number of Taliban killed but the number of civilians protected. This does sound very much like the new American counterinsurgency doctrine, doesn’t it?

Anna Husarska is senior policy advisor at the International Rescue Committee.

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

Anna Husarska is senior policy advisor at the International Rescue Committee.

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