Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Bombing your own people: the use of air power in South Asia
Pakistani army chief of staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani offered a rare apology at the weekend for a deadly air strike in the Khyber region in the northwest in which residents and local officials say at least 63 civilians were killed.
Tragically for the Pakistani military, most of the victims were members of a tribe that had stood up against the Taliban. Some of them were members of the army. Indeed as Dawn reported the first bomb was dropped on the house of a serving army officer, followed by another more devastating strike just when people rushed to the scene. Such actions defy description and an explanation is in order from those who ordered the assault, the newspaper said in an angry editorial.
But the question really is wasn’t it coming? The counter-insurgency strategy that Pakistan has pursued to wrest control of its turbulent northwest along the border with Afghanistan has consisted of heavy use of air strikes and long range artillery barrages in the initial stages before putting boots on the ground.
It’s the steam-roller approach that Lord Curzon, the turn-of-the century British Viceroy of India, spoke about when confronted with a similar challenge in Waziristan – except that it relies on stand-off weapons like releasing bombs from the safety of a jet aircraft to keep military casualties down, taking a leaf from the U.S. playbook in Afghanistan.
Indeed it would appear that while the U.S. is trying to change tack after years of deadly strikes in Afghanistan, and focus on avoiding casualties at all costs, the Pakistanis are relying on the classic counter-insurgency strategy of overwhelming force as Tim Foxley writes on the Afghanistan blog or the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
He calls it a mismatch in the way the war against militants is being fought on the two sides of the Durand Line separating Afghanistan and Pakistan, but if you looked elsewhere in the region, a heavy hand is increasingly the preferred course for security forces.
Sri Lanka conducted nearly daily air strikes and artillery barrages to crush the Tamil Tigers last summer at great cost to civilian lives. Some people in India are calling for a similar approach to tackling a strengthening Maoist insurgency operating deep in the jungles of central and eastern India. It’s the sort of option that New Delhi has balked at in half a century of fighting rebellions in its northeast and Kashmir in the last 20 years although it has thrown men and armour at the militants outnumbering them by a significant ratio.
But it takes quite a doing to bomb your own people in your territory and the only time New Delhi carried out air strikes were in the northeast state of Mizoram back in the 1960s when the separatist Mizo National Front almost overran the remote state. We are not counting the raids in Kargil in the summer of 1999 because those were irregular Pakistan soldiers who moved into the Indian part of Kashmir, triggering a near-war between the two countries.
The gains from the air strikes in Mizoram are debatable. While they succeeded in pushing back the guerrillas, it left deep scars and probably pushed back a resolution of the insurgency by several years. (Mizoram is now one of the most peaceful states in the Indian northeast).
The use of air strikes almost always brutalises an insurgency as B.Raman, former head of India’s Research and Analysis Wing writes.. ”Air strikes on one’s own nationals tend to aggravate an insurgency situation by causing casualties of civilians….. and driving more people to join the ranks of the insurgents,” he says. They also attract criticism from rights organisations, eroding international support even when you have a perfectly legitimate reason to take a tough but measured stance towards the insurgents.
It’s not that states are not using air power to help fight insurgencies. You can use planes for surveillance, both in terms of aerial photography and for electronic monitoring of ground signals. But to carry out bombing runs is a significant escalation.