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The South Asia Channel

Confronting civilian casualties in Pakistan

Last December, a young boy from Orakzai Agency in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) lost his mother during Pakistani military operations in the area. Jan Mohammed’s village was given ten minutes notice to evacuate before the Pakistani military began shelling. "Our house was up in the hills and my mother was coming down the ...

S.H. KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Last December, a young boy from Orakzai Agency in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) lost his mother during Pakistani military operations in the area. Jan Mohammed’s village was given ten minutes notice to evacuate before the Pakistani military began shelling. "Our house was up in the hills and my mother was coming down the hill track when the military started shelling. She was hit by one of the shells and died on the spot. If my mother was killed by the Taliban, one can expect it from them because they are crooks. But one can’t expect it from a trained army…they are here to protect us not to kill us like rats."

For the past year, I’ve interviewed over 160 civilian victims of the conflict in Pakistan-civilians who were injured, or like Jan, lost family members as a result of the fighting. These interviews are the basis for the new report released yesterday from my organization, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), Civilian Harm and Conflict in Northwest Pakistan. Interviews were conducted in refugee camps just outside of the FATA, and in places such as Peshawar, Hangu, Kohat, Dera Ismail Khan, and Tank; however, all those interviewed were originally displaced from the FATA.

Having spoken to victims from South Waziristan to Swat, it is clear that Pakistani civilians suffer not only from the terrorist attacks that dominate the headlines but also from many types of conflict-related violence, from Pakistani military operations to U.S. drone strikes. We also found that the number of civilians killed in Pakistan in 2009 almost certainly exceeds those killed in Afghanistan.

Most often, the civilians I interviewed expressed anger and despair at their condition. Losses shatter families, emotionally as well as economically, and many victims are burdened further by displacement and poverty. Yet most receive no assistance directed at helping them recover or even acknowledgement of the harm suffered. As one father, who lost both his arms to a Pakistani tank shell, told CIVIC, "I hold the army responsible.  For two or three militants they crush the whole village, and so we are against the army. I am the only member of the family that can support, but I am unable to work…I do not know how we will manage to live."

CIVIC also interviewed victims of drone attacks, uncovering 30 civilian deaths in only 9 cases and casting doubt on U.S. officials’ estimates of about 20 noncombatants killed over the period between 2009 and March 2010. Most drone victims I interviewed wanted the drone strikes to stop. Even those who opposed the Taliban demanded a halt to the strikes and criticized them for not being effective against militants.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. and its allies have embraced a population-centric approach, employing strategies and tactics that reduce civilian casualties and protect ordinary Afghans. They rightly perceive such efforts as central not only to legitimacy of ISAF but also the Afghan government.

That strategic logic and humanitarian imperative applies equally in Pakistan.

Almost all of the victims I spoke to also insisted that the Pakistani or US governments had a responsibility to make amends-meaning an acknowledgement of the harm suffered and an offer of assistance or compensation. CIVIC found that such gestures not only provide meaningful help, but mitigate anger and enhanced the perceived legitimacy of the Pakistani government and military. As one victim told CIVIC, "If they apologize and provide compensation, I would feel good; if they do so, then they are our brothers and our defenders, and this would not be such a big problem."

Our report shows that while some compensation programs do exist, serious gaps and deficiencies mean most victims receive no assistance after suffering a loss or injury. Indeed, none of those interviewed from the FATA had received any of the promised government compensation.

One glaring gap in restitution is for civilian victims of U.S. drone attacks, who receive nothing even under existing compensation schemes. As our interviews demonstrate, many have lost their homes and numerous family members but are left to pick up the pieces on their own. Adding insult to injury, their losses are entirely ignored by those responsible. Without any official acknowledgment or investigations of the strikes, either by the U.S. or Pakistan, no one attests to victims’ innocence or even provides a means for them to seek redress and voice their grievances.

Ignoring civilian casualties in Pakistan repeats a mistake that contributed to the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan. Our research shows that civilian losses breed resentment, undermine the perceived legitimacy of the state, and ease recruitment by extremists. Locals harbor and help insurgents while information and intelligence for those fighting them dries up. Insurgents gain ground and momentum as governance and security break down.

There are also longer-term implications for ignoring civilian casualties. Combating militancy in northern Pakistan requires a multi-pronged approach encompassing political reform, development efforts, and the extension of state structures into the FATA. But without the trust and participation of the local population, such initiatives are likely to fail. By not recognizing or assisting civilians harmed in the conflict, the U.S. and Pakistani governments are further alienating an already skeptical population, undermining the chances for long-term change in and around the tribal areas..

Civilians are clearly bearing the brunt of the conflict in Pakistan-yet their losses go unrecognized. The US and its allies believe that addressing civilian casualties is a crucial element of defeating insurgencies, and ensuring security and stability last. They have also learned that short-sightedness when it comes to the harm suffered by the people has time and again proved the undoing of seemingly successful military operations. These lessons appear to have been taken to heart in Afghanistan. It is time they were applied to Pakistan.

Chris Rogers is the Pakistan Field Fellow with the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC). He will present the findings of the report today at the New America Foundation from 3:30 pm – 5:00 pm.

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