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The war on civilians

Monday 1 June 2009, by Paul Rogers

The extension of war in Pakistan - from the Afghan border regions to Lahore - is inflicting a terrible toll on the country’s poor and displaced.

The car-bombing in Lahore of a police station and the local headquarters of Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) agency on 27 May 2009 is more than the seventh major attack on the city since January 2008 - and the third since March 2009, when the Sri Lankan cricket team and a police academy were targeted. The bomb, which killed twenty-seven people and and injured over a hundred, is a further indication of the systemic, interrelated and deep-rooted nature of Pakistan’s internal-security troubles.

Lahore, after all, is Pakistan’s cultural centre, a sophisticated city that lies close to India and is a long way from the intense fighting currently being waged in the Swat valley in North West Frontier Province (NWFP). If it can be repeatedly attacked with apparent impunity, it tells its own story about how the different parts of the country are becoming implicated in an all-consuming conflict (see Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan: a country on fire", 24 September 2008).

The military machine

The exact link between the Lahore bombing - and the twin attacks that followed in Peshawar on 28 May that killed eleven people and injutred dozens more - and what is happening in Swat is not yet clear, but Islamist militants in western Pakistan had threatened attacks across the country in response to the army’s operations in the NWFP. What is clear, though, is that those operations are massive and sustained and are having huge human consequences, whatever the belief in Islamabad that they are necessary to counter the increasing power of the Taliban and other militias.

A United Nations source has estimated the flow of internal refugees since mid-May 2009 as 2.4 million people; by 29 May, the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) calculated that the figure exceeded 3 million. There are few examples of such vast and sudden movements in recent history; the scale of what is happening recalls the traumatic events prior to the founding of Bangladesh in 1970-71, when many millions of people fled from the Pakistani army across the border into India.In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Much of the destruction in Swat is because the Pakistani army is simply not constructed for counterinsurgency or counter-guerrilla warfare - and the conflict in Swat is a combination of this with an out-and-out civil war. Pakistan has a standing army of 550,000, equipped with nearly 2,500 main battle-tanks and over 4,000 artillery pieces, five times the size of the British army. That may be large by any standards; but the "threat" from India has long dominated the Pakistani military posture, and India commands well over a million troops, 4,000 tanks and more than 10,000 artillery pieces.

What is essentially a powerful land army geared to armoured battles and artillery bombardments on the plains of south Asia, is now engaged in a war against its own people in a bitter internal conflict that is being conducted under a blanket of tight media control. Because of this, every impression is being given of a successful campaign against weak opponents - the Taliban - who are being put to flight. Where foreign journalists can report at all, they do so under tight army control and the rare visits they are able to make are to towns that are firmly under the army’s control (see Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan and the ‘AfPak’ strategy", 28 May 2009).

The civilian impact

Even so, two issues are emerging. One is that the assault will be prolonged and very violent. The army is readily using its huge firepower advantage, but the militias that it is trying to defeat are proving highly resilient. Even army sources now speak of "steady progress amid stiff resistance" and acknowledge that the war has some time to run (see Robert Birsel, "Bombs seen stiffening Pakistan resolve on militants, Reuters, 29 May 2009).

In the city of Mingora, for example, there has been intensive street-fighting, yet the government security forces have gained control of just one quarter of the urban area. More generally, the militias are now avoiding conflict in exposed places and are dispersing to towns and villages across the valley. The army in response is using helicopter gunships, strike-aircraft and artillery, whose main effect is widespread destruction including the wholesale flattening of villages.

The second issue follows: the serious humanitarian consequences (both short- and long-term) of the conflict. The United Nations estimates that $450 million is needed for immediate aid to respond to exceptional displacement of peoples. An indication of Washington’s concerns over the situation is the decision on 22 May to make an immediate commitment of $110 million in humanitarian aid. But this will barely touch the larger problem that many thousands of civilians are caught up in the fighting and prevented by a a Pakistani army curfew from escaping the conflict-zone.

Also on 22 May, the United Nations and several partner agencies launched an appeal for $543 million in aid; but by 28 May, the "humanitarian action plan" had reached only 21% of this total.

A leading Islamabad newspaper cites a report from Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, Brad Adams: "Reports of civilians killed in the crossfire continued to flood people break the curfew in desperate bids to find food and water for their families, or try and escape the aerial and ground bombardments" (see "Trapped civilians face catastrophe in Swat", Dawn, 26 May 2009).

The surge of over 2 million refugees who have fled from the area has overwhelmed the Pakistani government and agencies:

"The true dimensions of the refugee problem are apparent in Mardan, one of the primary destinations for civilians fleeing the battles in Swat and in neighbouring Buner and Dir. The city is studded with refugee camps consisting of endless rows of tan canvas tents that bake under the 110-degree skies. Schools are packed to capacity with families sleeping on concrete classroom floors, with each classroom housing 40 or more people" (see Griff Witte, "Pakistani Refugee Crisis Poses Peril", Washington Post, 25 May 2009).

A small proportion only of these refugees - 20%, according to Save the Children - is housed in government camps. Most are living outside them; half of the displaced are children.

The signal of war

The inability to cope with a crisis caused by its own military action means that Pakistan’s government is ceding influence to others (radical groups in particular) that are quick to fill the vacuum:

"The army has warned that some Taliban fighters joined the fleeing residents and may have infiltrated the refugee camps... Outside the camps, radical Islamist agendas are rushing in to fill the void left by the paucity of government services. The Falah-e-Insaniyat foundation, the successor to a group known as Jamaat-ud-Dawa, has established a major presence near Swat, feeding tens of thousands of displaced people and providing them with quality medical care" (see "Foundation provides food to 275,000 IDPs", The News, 17 May 2009)

In the longer term there are indications that the physical damage done to settlements will take years to repair. Qamar Zaman Kaira, Pakistan’s information minister, said that the authorities had started "initial satellite surveys for the rehabilitation of homes, businesses and cultivable lands". The very fact that the destruction demands satellite surveys gives some indication of the impact of the war after barely two weeks.

The war in northwest Pakistan may still be in its early stages, but it is already operating with an intensity that is not fully appreciated beyond the region. Pakistani army sources are presenting the operation as an extensive and determined effort to isolate a relatively small group of extremist militias. But three factors - the failure to cope with refugees, the ability of the militias to disperse, and the rapid provision of aid by radical movements - suggests that the long-term effects of the army’s campaign could be to intensify Pakistan’s divisions. The Lahore bombing and Peshawar attacks may be early signals of that.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

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