Two weeks ago there was a devastating attack in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Pakistan. A suicide bomber blew himself up as displaced families lined up to receive assistance. A few minutes later another bomber detonated his explosives in the middle of the crowd that had gathered. More than 40 people were killed and approximately 70 injured. While the Taliban are known for attacks in civilian areas, there have been few if any large scale attacks inside IDP camps since 2008 when Pakistani military offensives against the Taliban intensified with the support of the United States.
It is unclear why the IDPs were targeted. The local police chief suggested that it was revenge against two tribes whose members allegedly formed a militia back home in support of the military. On the other hand, Pakistani military personnel have a permanent presence and control humanitarian operations in most camps, so in the eyes of the Taliban, many IDP camps could be considered a legitimate target. Whatever the reason, this attack matters because it highlights the complexities of the armed conflict in Pakistan and the vulnerability of the Pakistani people. But in a country where the war is intensifying and abuses are being committed by both sides, it also highlights contradictions in U.S. policy.
Since 2008, more than 3 million Pakistanis have been forced to flee their homes to seek refuge from combat between the military and armed militants. In that time, the United States has provided billions in military aid to Pakistan. But as in most armed conflicts, civilians are disproportionately affected. As President Obama acknowledged in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, in today’s wars “many more civilians are killed than soldiers [and] the seeds of future conflict are sewn . . .”
U.S. financed operations against the Taliban have been marked by indiscriminate bombings of communities sometimes without enough advance notice for civilians to evacuate. Thousands of houses and other buildings like medical clinics, stores and schools have been destroyed or seriously damaged. According to a Pakistani human rights group, as many as 400 people were killed unlawfully by the military in 2009 alone. Thousands of Pakistanis have been called on by the Pakistani military to take up arms on their behalf, putting them directly in the line of fire.
The United States government has never publicly denounced these activities. Despite the increasing documentation of gross violations of human rights by the military, the Pakistani government, at least publicly, denies wrongdoing. In the face of mounting evidence the Pakistani military will have the choice of acknowledging responsibility for gross violations of human rights against its own people, or blaming it on the United States which has funded military operations against the Taliban and is not on record expressing concern over the military’s indiscriminate attacks or excessive use of force.
The Pakistani military also controls the humanitarian response. It authorizes or denies access to aid organizations to certain parts of the country, determines which displaced populations are eligible for assistance and actively participates in reconstruction efforts, all activities that civil authorities should be leading. The military is also present in camps for the displaced, fearing infiltration by Taliban elements; and during a recent trip to Pakistan, I was told about searches being conducted by the military in Pakistan’s largest IDP camp- Jalozai Camp. The U.S. government contributes millions of dollars to the Pakistani government’s relief efforts for the displaced but hasn’t prioritized advocating that all displaced families receive government assistance.
The conflict in Pakistan is not coming to a close any time soon. Some argue that the military operations are having their intended impact and disorienting armed militant groups while others argue that they are simply moving the militants around the country and into Afghanistan only to return once the government soldiers go home. But it would be a security nightmare if unchallenged military abuses lead to more extremism inside Pakistan and hostility towards the United States and it is abhorrent that thousands of Pakistan’s most vulnerable are being turned away from relief efforts in their greatest hour of need. The U.S. should publicly denounce military abuses against the Pakistani people and should work with the government to shift the humanitarian response to the civilian authorities and ensure that all Pakistani’s suffering from the war are supported and provided for. It’s not just strategic – it also happens to be the right thing to do.
Congressional Advocate, Refugees International
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