Pakistan’s Refugee Disaster

Pakistan is suffering one of the worst humanitarian disasters since the Bangladesh crisis in 1971, thanks to President Obama’s decision to fund the Pakistan army’s escalating internal war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

According to human rights observers, in the past 5 months alone, an estimated 2-3 million internal refugees have been forced out of their homes by the Pakistan army’s indiscriminate attacks on insurgent bases and civilians living in the northern Swat Valley or in the contested border region with Afghanistan, including most recently, in SouthWaziristan.

While as many as 1 million internal refugees have received assistance and protection from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the rest have been left to fend for themselves in makeshift tent camps or have migrated to nearby population centers. The dispersed and informal nature of the refugee flow, coupled with Pakistan’s attempts to block aid to areas of suspected insurgent support, has complicated the relief effort. A special UNHCR appeal to the international community for emergency funding totaling $500 million has produced less than 25% of the funds needed for ongoing refugee care.

Prior to the most recent Pakistan offensive in Waziristan, Pakistan-based Nadia Tariq Ali of the New York-based Asia Foundation, described the refugee crisis in stark terms:

“The [refugee crisis] is immense and growing. The military offensive uprooted millions of people from three northwestern districts. As the offensive gained strength and people fled their homes for safety, the Pakistani government seemed unprepared for the crisis. Initially, no refugee camps existed; so many people went to the homes of their relatives and friends in other cities. However, in subsequent days, tens of thousands of people have gone to the special sites established for the [displaced persons] in Mardan, Swabi, and Peshawar. Unfortunately, these facilities lacked even the most basic amenities of life: food, proper sanitation, and health facilities. The disruption of normal life has affected displaced persons psychologically, economically, socially, and emotionally.”

Coverage of the refugee crisis has been hampered by the difficulty Western NGOs and journalists face gaining access to the war zones under Pakistani army control, many of them located in highly inaccessible terrain. Even now, many details, including the numbers of solider and civilian killed and wounded, and the precise number and locations of the displaced, remain sketchy. In Octboer, there were reports that half the refugees from the Swat Valey and the northern frontier regions were preparing to return home, but because the army’s campaign damaged local infrastructure and services, those reports are probably exaggerated.

The media blackout in the war zones isn’t due simply to restricted access. According to reporters in Islamabad, US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has adopted a standing policy of refusing to answer media questions about the Pakistan war’s rising civilian toll, because of the obvious embarrassment it could cause US policy there.

In fact, not all of this civilian toll – or Holbrooke’s reluctance to answer questions – is due to Pakistan’s ground war. Since last summer, the CIA has escalated Predator drone attacks against suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban cells in Pakistan’s frontier zone, which, despite official denials and disinformation about the attacks’ "surgical precision," have also caused disproportionate civilian casualties. David Kilcullen, one of the leading US counterinsurgency experts and a top Pentagon advisor with access to classified intelligence has appealed to the Obama administration to abandon its use of drones, calling the current level of "collateral damage" – 98 civilians killed or injured for every 1-2 insurgents eliminated – "immoral."

The unprecedented refugee toll inside Pakistan is calling into question several aspects of American war strategy. First, many observers, including US military experts like Kilcullen, are worried that the Pakistani army, despite American prodding, is simply incapable of adapting itself to wage low-level counter-guerrilla operations at an “acceptable” level of violence. Pakistan’s national defense doctrine identifies a potential war with India as the main threat to its national security. For this reason, 200,000 or more Pakistani troops are still positioned near the border with India to blunt a hypothetical Indian attack. That leaves too few troops available to be deployed against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents.

But force distribution and size ratios are only part of the problem, experts say. Because of its conventional force structure and training, the Pakistan army also employs fighting tactics designed to attack enemy forces rather than to secure the local population and protect it from insurgent political pressure. These tactics include large infantry sweeps and aerial bombardment with artillery, fighter planes and helicopter gunships that leave civilians in insurgent areas with little choice but to flee or be killed. Almost by definition, a high refugee population in an insurgency setting is a sign that the pursuing force is pursuing the wrong strategy, COIN experts say.

It is generally agreed that in contrast to Afghanistan, where the Taliban enjoys popular support, most Pakistanis have grown increasingly hostile to the Pakistani wing of the Taliban and its Al-Qaeda allies, especially since last summer when the insurgents violated the terms of their cease fire and began a wave of urban terror. But the inability of the Pakistan army to protect the civilian population, and its eventual withdrawal from the current war zones, will simply leave a new void of security in rural areas that the insurgents will return to fill. A similar pattern played itself out in earlier and smaller Pakistani military offensives against the Taliban in 2008, but this year the civilian toll, and the political fall-out, will be higher, Pakistanis say.

The United States had hoped that the Pakistani army would adopt the kind of “population-centric” counterinsurgency campaign that prevents large-scale violence and refugee flows. However, a detailed report prepared by a Pakistani military researcher, entitled Pakistani Capabilities for a Counterinsurgency Campaign, and published in September 2009 by the Washington, DC-based New Americas Foundation, suggests otherwise. In fact, despite US prodding, and last August’s massive increase in US aid ($7.5 billion over the next 5 years), there is little chance that the Pakistani army will comply, the report concludes. In addition to being overly focused on the threat from India, the military’s rural security forces remain poorly trained and equipped, and its relations with the civilian government are too fragile to build effective civil-military cooperation to prosecute a successful COIN campaign.

Moreover, an overhaul of the Pakistani army would almost certainly require in-country training and support from US military advisors. Their presence, once known, would likely provoke a public backlash, strengthening the insurgents’ political appeal, the report says.

In fact, even with an improved counterinsurgency strategy, there is ample evidence that the Pakistan army, for strategic political reasons, is highly unlikely to move aggressively against the Taliban. Pakistan, in fact, has long supported the Afghan Taliban as a way of keeping the neighboring Karzai government, which it views as aligned with India, its mortal enemy, at bay. Thus, the army is careful to distinguish the Pakistani wing of the Taliban movement, which has recently turned on the Pakistan army as part of a strategy of global jihad, from the Afghan wing of the Taliban, which is also based in Pakistan, but apparently not wedded to jihad. Both wings of the Taliban have enjoyed friendly relations with the army, especially its intelligence services known as ISI, for years.

Some observers believe that the Pakistan army’s recent military offensives against the Taliban, despite their intensity, are largely “showpiece” operations that the army knows will merely scatter the insurgents without seriously degrading their capabilities. The offensives send a signal of the army’s growing displeasure with some elements of the Taliban, and reaffirm the army’s determination to exercise aggressive control over its national territory, in the face of claims by some ethnic groups for greater political autonomy. The offensives also demonstrate to India Pakistan’s military preparedness, while suggesting to the Obama administration that Pakistan is willing to “play ball.”

In fact, it is quite clear that Pakistan has no intention of severing its long-standing relationship with the Taliban. Any doubts about this were erased last week when the government announced that it would not support a proposed American campaign against Taliban leaders based in Baluchistan in southern Pakistan. The US would like to launch Predator drone attacks against the Afghan Taliban leadership council headed by Mullah Muhammad Omar that has long been based in Quetta, Baluchistan, just across the border from Afghanistan. However, last summer, when the US first announced such plans, the Pakistan army balked, and quietly transported Omar and other Taliban leaders to safe houses in Karachi.

Pakistan’s willingness to aggressively pursue the Taliban, and its granting of permission for Predator drone attacks against Omar’s leadership group in Baluchistan were two of the conditions that Congress attached to the last August aid package to Pakistan. In recent weeks, the United States has also let it be known that unless the Pakistani army cooperates, the Pentagon plans to take independent action against the Taliban. In addition to CIA drone attacks, the Pentagon would like to dispatch US Special Forces teams to hunt down Taliban leaders in Baluchistan, as they have inside Afghanistan.

Any such move would likely be a political disaster for the United States and Pakistan. Pakistan still officially denies that American drone attacks are occurring in the border region with Afghanistan. Opposition to US war plans in the region is strong, and even President Obama enjoys only a 20% approval rating among Pakistanis, according to recent polls. On December 16, The New York Times reported that Pakistan had begun blocking visa requests for dozens of US diplomats, an unprecedented move by a friendly ally that suggests the depth of official Pakistani opposition to US threats and pressure tactics.

In the meantime, with the winter months fast approaching, hundreds of thousands of “unintegrated” refugees who do not find more durable shelter, even as military sweeps continue, could face exposure and starvation. Some aid groups are demanding that the United States pressure Pakistan to respect international humanitarian law and allow independent access to the refugees. However, in this, as in all other national policy matters, Pakistan will remain highly resistant to American aid leverage, making token gestures, but always insisting on its own prerogatives. It’s a dangerous sign of even worse things to come.

STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a foreign and defense policy specialist based in Washington, DC. He is grateful to numerous US-based Pakistani commentators for their insights. He can be reached at

Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).