Pakistan: from refugee exodus to high-tech drones

May 8, 2009

With Pakistan launching what the country’s Daily Times calls an “all-out war” against the Taliban, more than 500,000 people have fled the fighting in the northwest, bringing to more than a million those displaced since August, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.After apparently giving the Taliban enough rope to hang themselves, by offering a peace deal in the Swat valley which the government said they then reneged upon, the government for now seems to have won enough popular backing to launch its offensive.But to succeed in defeating the Taliban, the government must also be ready with a strategy to rebuild shattered lives if the mood in the northwest is not to turn sour, Dawn newspaper says. It quotes defence analyst Ikram Sehgal as estimating the military could take up to two months to conclude its campaign, and that dealing with the impact on civilians will require more than 10 times the one billion rupees (12 million dollars) the government has so far announced.In a separate article, it says that refugees are already upset about the behaviour of both the Taliban and the military. ’We are frightened of the Taliban and the army. If they want to fight, they should kill each other, they should not take refuge in our homes,” it quotes an 18-year-old girl as saying.Both Pakistan’s The News International newspaper and the blog Changing up Pakistan warn against the onset of compassion fatigue, both for  the sake of the people affected and to make sure refugee camps do not turn into recruiting grounds for the Taliban.”If the militants can provide services and offer more viable options for IDPs than the state, that is a dangerous phenomenon. The government and international agencies must therefore do more to relieve the plight of the ever-increasing number of displaced persons in Pakistan, not just for humanitarian purposes, but because we cannot afford to let the Taliban win any more,” Changing up Pakistan says.In the meantime, more questions are being raised about the U.S. administration’s policy of using unmanned drone aircraft to fire missiles on Pakistan’s tribal areas. The missile attacks, meant to target militant leaders and disrupt al Qaeda’s capabilities, cause civilian casualties, alienate Pakistanis who see them as an invasion of sovereignty and add to a perception that Pakistan is fighting “America’s war” in one place, while being bombed by American planes in another.Foreign Policy Journal quotes U.S. Congressman Ron Paul as criticising the Obama administration for continuing the drone missile attacks first started under President George W. Bush. “We are bombing a sovereign country,” it quotes him as saying. “Where do we get the authority to do that? Did the Pakistani government give us written permission? Did the Congress give us written permission to expand the war and start bombing in Pakistan?” he asked.

It adds that he said there are “many, many thousands of Pashtuns that are right smack in the middle, getting killed by our bombs, and then we wonder why they object to our policies over there. How do you win the hearts and minds of these people if we’re seen as invaders and occupies?”

Dawn newspaper also urges an end to the drone attacks in a passionately worded editorial.

“The justification offered earlier was that Pakistan appeared helpless against the rising tide of militancy and terrorism. But now the army has launched renewed offensives in the militant-infested areas and reports suggest that gains are being achieved. Meanwhile, public opinion is turning against the militants, with many in the citizenry now demanding that no stone be left unturned in bringing them to book. In this situation, the continuing U.S. drone incursions are robbing our security forces of some of their moral legitimacy and are, in fact, undermining the war effort,” it says.”Meanwhile, the Pakistan Army and other security forces continue to suffer heavy casualties in the battles under way on our western borders. These losses cannot help but be juxtaposed with the fact that the U.S. uses unmanned drones to fight without putting any of its soldiers at risk. It may soon be asked whether Afghan or Pakistani lives are less precious than those of the Americans.”Since the United States never officially acknowledges the CIA-operated drone attacks, it is hard to get a clear picture of where the policy stands. But Britain’s Daily Telegraph earlier this week quoted sources close to the Obama administration as saying the missile strikes were being re-evaluated because of their adverse affect on public opinion and value to the Taliban as a propaganda tool.Finally, B. Raman, formerly at Indian’s Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) intelligence agency, has an interesting perspective on the troubles in Pakistan’s tribal areas in this article.The Americans, he says, have got to stop being so heavy-handed and consider the grievances of the Pashtun people caught up in the middle of the battle against al Qaeda and the Taliban. “The Pashtun anger is the root cause of the mushrooming Taliban organisations right across the Pashtun belt,” he writes. ”Instead of trying to understand the Pashtun anger and to mitigate it, President Barack Obama, his advisers and aides have been fuelling it further through their insensitive and thoughtless statements and comments, which tend to project the Pashtuns as a whole as accomplices of Al Qaeda, paint an apocalyptic characterisation of the developments in the Pashtun belt and unnecessarily over-stress the role of the security forces in dealing with the violence resulting from the Pashtun anger.”(Reuters photos of refugees/Faisal Mahmood)

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