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War Crimes and a Humanitarian Crisis in FATA

Wall Street Journal ♥ Pakistani Army

by CHARLES PIERSON

The Wall Street Journal has a great big woody for the Pakistani Army.  Witness the Journal’s fawning love note on March 11.  The page one story by Yaroslav Trofimov proclaims:  “In Its Own War on Terror, Pakistan Piles Up Heavy Losses.”

The Journal wants us to know how terribly Pakistani soldiers have suffered in the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal regions on the border with Afghanistan.  The story describes a Cpl. Mohammed Yakub who is receiving agonizing physical therapy in a hospital in Rawalpindi.  A Taliban roadside bomb in North Waziristan killed 17 of the corporal’s fellow troops and left Yakub himself with a “traumatic head injury,” unable to speak or feed himself.  It was, the Journal tells us, the men’s “first home leave.”

A photo shows Cpl. Yakub strapped to his physiotherapy board.  A separate photo shows a Pvt. Mohammed Ali who, the caption tells us, “lost a leg to a Taliban mine.”

At least the injured troops receive the thanks of their countrymen?  Not necessarily.  The Journal sadly explains:

In addition to their physical wounds, Pakistan’s injured soldiers, like U.S. Vietnam veterans in an earlier era, must deal with a society that doesn’t always appreciate their service.  The conflict with the Taliban pits soldiers against fellow Muslims and fellow Pakistanis, and against a sizable segment of the public that views the war in the tribal areas as imposed by the U.S. and counter to Islamic values.

The Journal leaves out one other parallel with Vietnam:  war crimes.  The Pakistan army is responsible for disappearances, unlawful detention, extrajudicial killing, bombardment of villages, and mass displacement of Pakistan’s tribal peoples..

I don’t want to minimize the very real suffering of Cpl. Yakub and Pvt. Ali, nor of the other 4,000+ soldiers killed and 13,000+ wounded since 2004 according to the Journal.  But the Journal’s solicitude runs dry when it comes to civilians.  The story includes no sympathy-inducing photos of civilian amputees.

The Journal gives no indication that the conflict in FATA is a dirty war against the region’s tribal peoples and financed by the United States.

The Wall Street Journal isn’t ignorant of the Pakistani army’s crimes.  Only three months ago, the Journal reported on an army massacre of unarmed civilians (Saeed Shah, “Pakistani Army Accused of Waziristan Killings of Civilians,” Dec. 19, 2013.)  This earlier story quoted local residents, three of them named, who told how an army unit ordered more than 20 men out of a restaurant in North Waziristan and then killed them execution style.  No trial, no jury.  The restaurant owner said that the men killed were truck drivers.  The article said that the army was reacting to a suicide attack on an army checkpoint which had killed five soldiers.  An army spokesman rejected the residents’ account of the slaughter, instead claiming that the army had killed several armed terrorists in a series of firefights.

In the time-honored military tradition of destroying a village in order to save it, the army bombards villages either with insufficient advance notice or with no notice at all.  A December 12, 2012 report from Amnesty International:  “The Hands of Cruelty:  Abuses by Armed Forces and Taliban in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas” relates that the army arbitrarily detains people in the tribal areas for long periods without charge and without due process of law.  In some cases, family members have no idea what has happened to their loved ones.  Many surviving detainees allege torture.  Other detainees never return.

The army’s operations in FATA drive unbelievable numbers of tribals from their homes.  300,000 people from the Bajaur and Mohmand Agencies were driven from their homes by Operation Sher Dil in 2008/2009.  This is comparable to evacuating everyone in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  A little more than a year later, according to Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Gul, military operations in Kurram, Orakzai, and Mohmand “caus[ed] nearly two hundred thousand people to flee from their homes.”  Mohmand had already suffered the Army’s ravages previously.  Since the Army’s campaigns in FATA never permanently dislodge the Taliban, the people of each tribal agency get killed and uprooted again and again.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, a freelance writer for Asia Times Online, wrote that August 2008 saw the Army displace “[a]lmost 1 million people from South Waziristan, Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber Agency, and Orakzai Agency.”  Yes, one million people—nearly the population of Dallas, Texas.  Shahzad discussed the army’s emptying of the tribal areas in his first—and last—book, Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban:  Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 (2011).  Shahzad missed his publication party.  The Army’s powerful intelligence branch, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had murdered him shortly before the book’s release in retaliation for a story he had published about Islamist extremists in the Pakistan Navy.  Literary criticism doesn’t get harsher than that.

Army incursions in 2009 displaced at least 2 million people—more than the population of Philadelphia—from Swat and Malakand.

Fast forward to today.  There are currently 975,000 persons who have been displaced by continuing armed conflict in FATA.

Add to this figure the 1.6 million Afghan refugees which the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports are in the country.  These figures add up to massive human suffering and a humanitarian crisis on a scale the Pakistani state is ill-equipped to cope with.

*         *          *

President Barack Obama has called FATA:  “the most dangerous place in the world.”  He should know.  The US recently celebrated (if that is the word) its 300th drone strike on Pakistan.  All but two of the US strikes have taken place in FATA.

US responsibility for civilian deaths in Pakistan does not end with drone strikes.  No, not when the United States writes the checks for the Pakistan army.  In 2013, the United States gave Pakistan $1.6 billion dollars in economic and military aid.  Since 2002, the United States has provided the Pakistani military with more than $13 billion in direct aid and arms sales.

True, the United States did withhold assistance to six units of the Pakistani military in late 2010.  This was pursuant to the 1997 Leahy Amendment which requires cuts in assistance to units of foreign militaries which the Secretary of State determines have committed “gross violations of human rights.”  The Obama Administration said at the time that the decision had been in the works for months.  However, the Administration’s plans were not announced until after a video surfaced on the Internet, initially on jihadi websites, in early October 2010 which appeared to show a firing squad of Pakistani soldiers executing six blindfolded prisoners in civilian clothes.

Groupies of the Pakistan army will be relieved to hear that the cuts under the Leahy Amendment did not affect a separate five-year $2 billion aid package to Pakistan intended for counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations.

After that, the United States decided that the Pakistan army had suffered enough; 2010 was the last time the Leahy Amendment was invoked against Pakistan.

And the Pakistani army doesn’t even want to fight the Taliban.  As Tariq Ali wrote in The Guardian (Feb. 4, 2014): “[T]he ISI, and its bosses in Pakistan cannot afford to offend the TTP [Pakistan Taliban] too much” because that would sacrifice Pakistan’s policy of “strategic depth.”  Ali was referring to the overarching goal of Pakistan’s defense policy which is to ensure an Afghanistan free of Indian influence.  Toward that end, Pakistan’s military has maintained ties with anti-Indian Islamic militant groups for decades.

So, except when attacked, the Pakistani army goes after the Taliban and Al-Qaeda only after much prodding by the United States.  The US pressures Pakistan to eradicate the militants in the tribal areas in order to stop the militants’ attacks on US forces across the border in Afghanistan.

Another humanitarian crisis in FATA is coming.  For months, Islamabad has been weighing a new military incursion into North Waziristan.  This campaign seems increasingly likely to become a reality given the failure of the government’s on-again/off-again peace talks with the Pakistan Taliban.  If the history of army operations in FATA is any indication, this new campaign in North Waziristan will cause hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, to flee from their homes.  Maybe the Wall Street Journal will take notice of civilian suffering then.

Charles Pierson is a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition.  E-mail him at Chapierson@yahoo.com.