Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Bombing your own people: the use of air power in South Asia

April 19, 2010
(U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt jets, also known as the Warthog. File photo)

(U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt jets, also known as the Warthog. File photo)

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.


It’s shocking that the author has based his views on an article written by Hariharan when it comes to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka did not carry out daily air strikes and with the Sri Lanka Air Force’s use of aerial drones for surveillance the civilian casualties were actually low. The only accusation, which remains unproven BTW, is that shelling caused the loss of lives.

Posted by Mohamed Amjad | Report as abusive

The air strikes by Pakistan in the tribal zones are anything but a “steam-roller approach.” The strike that killed the civilians was an instance of targetting error, and not a blind bomb run. Pakistan government did the right thing by accepting responsibility, and compensating the victims.

Don’t get too high on lack of Indian air bombardments; Indians have managed to kill tens of thousands of their own people over the years without the benefit of air power, and I would hate to imagine the casualties if air power was used.

In fact, Pakistan would not have to use air or land forces at all if India was not providing support to the terrorists from its embassy and consulates in Afghanistan. So, rather than pooh poohpooing Pakistan, India had beeter stop fomenting terror.

Posted by Sharafat | Report as abusive

When it comes to Sri Lanka, the article is based on pure hearsay. No one claimed Sri Lankan air force bombed its own civilians except obviously on a few Tamil terrorist websites. Basing your facts on terrorist propaganda websites is an insult to good journalism

Very poorly researched and one would expect something better from a Reuters blog

Posted by Demos | Report as abusive

No matter who does it, taking the aerial route is fraught with consequences like happened here. In the long run it leaves bitterness and creates a great divide within.

Before succumbing to US pressure to use the Air Force, consider the following. The US has blatantly resorted to using air power to tackle insurgencies or militant activity. In Asia, they have done it in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and in Pakistan too. Would they dare use their air power on their own soil?

Posted by Dara | Report as abusive

As a Pakistani, I would not justify it, and label it as one of the stupidiests act on part of our air force. The people involved should be court mashalled in order to bring perfection in their job and avoid any future tragidy like this.

Posted by Khan | Report as abusive

You mention that Kargil was due to irregular Pakistani soldiers. Pray can you tell us what an Irregular soldier is viz a viz a regular soldier.

Posted by MGupta | Report as abusive

not only in Pakistan, but in many other places around the world, from Afghanistan, to Gaza, Sri Lanka, and Somalia, we can see that the use of explosive weapons – rockets, bombs, IEDs, etc. – near civilians invariably exposes the civilan population to grave risks, causing extensive suffering and destruction and increasing the challenge of post-conflict reconstruction.

the article raises important questions that deserve more public debate:
- under what circumstances and in accordance with what policies and procedures can explosive weapons be used in the vicinity of civilians?
- is it more acceptable to use explosive weapons amongst foreign civilian populations than in a domestic context? and if so, why?



Posted by ZAKIR HUSSAIN | Report as abusive

There can be no justification for the loss of human lives; but it was an encouraging gesture from the chief of the army to apologize for the mistake. Sometimes it’s inevitable to carry out these strikes, but not on the expense of innocent civilian lives.

Posted by Farukh Sarwar | Report as abusive

The world’s hearts always go out to those who are victims of collateral damage.

Pakistani’s must understand that the world always denounces when innocents are killed, there is never justification for that and it is purely unintentional to kill innocents.

But Pakistani’s must also know that those same firebrand politically charged Islamists that hate everything non-muslim, are the same muslims that they have tolerated in their mosques and masjids, either because you sympathize quietly or are too frightened to say anything against them, or simply don’t care.

Well the chickens have come home to roost and these ISlamists are political parasites that need to be wiped out, unfortunately, the Army finds it easier to bomb them than carry out surgical ground campaigns and the unfortunate reality is that this festering of Islamism and hate was actually propagated as a political tool by the Army itself, to consolidate political power. Now all that has backfired.

It is time for Pakistanis to take back their country for themselves and redefine themselves outside of hatred for India, outside of Allah, outside of America and especially outside of Army. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying give up Allah, rather that the nationalistic sentiment in Pakistan must be redefined to embrace a modern, advanced, educated Pakistan that wants to compete with the world, outside of religion, outside of fighting and sectarian supremecy.

The time has come for average Pakistani’s to ask them selves who are we, and where do we want to go as a people? Have what we been doing so far since partition worked for us, why has India done light years better than us and why are there so many Billionaires in India?
Why is religion and politics tearing our country apart and so many people are dying from muslim on muslim violence? I repeat, these are not hindus or christians or jews doing this, this IS muslims doing this.

The politics of Islam must end in Pakistan, if it does not, that which was created to unify and create Pakistan, that being religion, is the same tool that will disintegrate it, if the politics of religion is not managed better. On top of that agitating India through low and high level terrorist proxy wars should not be a tool for political unity, it has bled Pakistan financially dry and brought the political wrath of the world against Pakistan in every way.

Again, may God bless all innocents killed muslim or non-muslim. All of God’s children are equal, regardless of religion.

Posted by GlobalWatcher | Report as abusive

The US bombed people all the time


@The US bombed people all the time.
—Blog Tactic


Posted by rajeevk | Report as abusive

Bombing an insurgency at the end benefits the insurgents as they are able to recruit affectees who in the rage and grief tend to listen to the insurgent ideas more receptively.
insurency can be best fought through a trained and equipped police and commandos who can do hand to hand and street based combat. it looks foolish that a MACH 2 aircraft is chasing militants in forests; while a special task unit can do the same job more efficiently.

however regretfully in pakistan it is now a fashion to add war on terror in every sentence. a google search through the air and naval chiefs statements would reveal that they are at pains to prove that they have taken part in the war on terror and that their forces are tuned to that type of warfare. taking of militancy; in kashmir. during the start days, yasin malik, hamid shiekh and javed Ahmad Mir were tracked and arrested through ground intelligence and not through a recce MIg-25.

Posted by Naqi Akbar | Report as abusive

Firstly I am not a political man. I’m happy to know someone atleast still remembers the Air strikes done in the heart of Aizawl the capital of Mizoram during the insurgency. Yes I think that was the worst mistake that the central govt. took. We the people of this state still really want to hear an apology from whoever was responsible. Perhaps that would heal the wounds of many which is still evident.

Posted by PUIA (fr. Aizawl, Mizoram) | Report as abusive

If Pakistan used its resources to uplift its poverty stricken people,it would not be in this situation.Look at the E.A.E,they are islamic and progressive.Maybe Pakistan should be reeducated from the middle east.

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

When the “government” in a country serves a foreign entity, and not its own people, being bombed by air by your “own” air force does not come as a surprise. In most countries the local people realize this now, even if the government has apparently been elected by a democratic process. What is evident in Pakistan as elsewhere is that there are people within who do not have to be forced to do the foreign bidding, but would do so for their own ultimate gain. They will be paid well and will migrate to their masters haven when their work is done or things become too hot within their own country. What is most perverse is that the resources of the country is used for its own destruction.

Posted by Ram | Report as abusive

It is rather sad that the author rehashes the canard of the Tiger terrorists that Sri Lanka bombed them on a daily basis. It is also the exception to the rule I pointed out above, where a foreign entity was being served. The activities were completely legitimate and in pursuit of the destruction of a terrorist group funded from abroad.

Posted by Ram | Report as abusive

I guess after admitting the faults of air force pilots, the culprits will be discharged from the air force and most probably end up flying Pakistan civilian air lines. God should have mercy on the passenger who would use Pakistan civilian air lines. This was not even the collateral damage which the Americans always claim.

Posted by rex minor | Report as abusive

When the Indian Air Force bombed Aizawl, the then Indian government didn’t seem to have any reluctance to attack its own people on Indian soil. Collateral damage of any magnitude was acceptable to them. It was providence that civilian casualty was minimal. The Maoists should thank their lucky stars our political and military leaders are not so reckless anymore.

Posted by M. Pachuau | Report as abusive

It is tragic that when the Indian government first contemplated bombing Aizawl, the people of Mizoram did not have anyone brave or prudent enough to stand up for them. That act will forever remain in the annals of infamy.

Posted by Mama Pachuau | Report as abusive

It is tragic that when the Indian government first contemplated bombing Aizawl, the people of Mizoram had no one brave or prudent enough to stand up in their defence. That day will forever remain in the annals of infamy.

Posted by M. Pachuau | Report as abusive

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