Monday, 18 August 2008

Part II: Bajur in the Aftermath of Lowi Sam

This is a follow-up to my earlier post on the Battle of Lowi Sam and the second in a series of posts on whats been happening in the regions along the Pak-Afghan border.

Following the debacle at Lowi Sam and the threatened encirclement of the FC Regional Headquarters at Khar, it seems as if the gloves really came off for the armed forces. Apart from the heavy use of artillery, the army's air arm and the Air Force (including the use of F-16s) both played a heavy role in attacking suspected militants in Bajur.

August 14, which is Pakistan's Independence Day, saw militants taking shelter within the built-up areas of Khar. The military dropped leaflets ordering civlians to leave the areas in which they were hiding as a prelude to bombardment. The leaflets included the following draconian orders:

“Security forces have launched an operation against miscreants and people have to follow certain guidelines for their own safety,” the pamphlet said.

It asked people to immediately alight from their vehicles and raise their hands if a helicopter flew over them.

It said drivers should not park their vehicles under trees. Violators of the instruction would be attacked, it warned.

The following day saw a reported 35 deaths and the bombardment of a number of militant targets, including the Taliban's FM radio station which was operating from a Madressah run by a Maulvi Muneer, a Taliban court and private jail, and anti-aircraft guns the Taliban were using against the helicopters. The leader of the Bajur Taliban, Faqeer Mohammad, meanwhile was said to have narrowly escaped being killed in an airstrikes (Originally the authorities claimed to have killed him, but he later surfaced, though he did admit that several of his colleagues were killed).

The Jamaat-i-Islami meanwhile called for a halt on the military operation, claiming that it had dispalced over 300,000 people. While that seems to have been an exaggeration, one might get a sense of the scale of displacement by the fact that the authorities at one checkpoint counted 3000 families passing through in search of shelter. A conservative estimate would make that between 15-20,000 people - on one road!

The Prime Minister, in his first address to the Parliament since his return from the States, took a tough stance on tackling militancy. Aftab Sherpao of the NWFP-based PPP-S and the PML-Q asked some tough questions on the use and effectiveness of airstrikes. Aftab Sherpao's estimate was of 200,000 refugees.

By the 16th of August, authroities were claiming to have cleared militants out of Khar and its environs and were calling on refugees to return there, though its not clear how many people responded to this call since they repeated it again the next day (the government is claiming 130 families have returned). More importantly, it seems as if local tribesmen have decided to take on the militants and have started their own patrols to seek them out (militants killed two tribesmen the same day).

While I'm sceptical of the capability of the local tribes to effectviely combat the Taliban, and generally am very sceptical of the idea of heavily armed groups of tribesmen wandering around anywhere, once again what the case does underline is that there does seem to be a strong groundswell of antagonism for the Taliban. The key here is that the military needs to be careful that it doesnt push the local populace back into the arms of the Taliban through indescriminate airstrikes and the use of artillery. People may be happy that the government is doing something about the armed bullies who drive around threatening barbers and telling them how to live, but that happiness may quickly evaporate if they start losing relatives and their houses and property to randomn shelling.

The News has some interesting articles on the situation in Bajur. Firstly we start getting some solid statistics:

Provincial Relief Commissioner Jamil Amjad has said the ongoing military operation had led to the biggest migration in the country’s history. “More than 39,100 families comprising about 250,000 individuals have been displaced, amongst whom some 70,000 people are registered in the relief camps in Dir Lower, Malakand Region and Peshawar,” he told a press conference here.

The largest share of the burden of refugees has fallen on Dir, which is struggling to cope with the influx of refugees:

More than 85 percent schools, hospitals, rural health centres, basic health units and other government buildings in Jandool and 15 to 20 percent in other parts of the district have been occupied by the military operation victims. The affected families could be seen sitting in the open, under-construction markets, bazaars, bus stands, at roadsides and in camps in a miserable condition. Though the provincial government has been providing tents and food to the migrants at camps for the last three days, the sanitation and other facilities are barely discernible.

It seems as if militants fleeing security forces were also trying to set up shop in Dir, but after prolonged neotiations with local tribal elders, they have agreed to leave.

We also get some insights on what is happening within the area of conflict. Helicopter airstrikes seem to be exercising some form of discrimination when choosing targets:

Choppers were also sent and directed to destroy the house of TTP spokesman Maulvi Omar but since it was located in middle of the houses and aerial strikes could cause damage to other houses and residents, therefore, the idea was dropped. The gunship choppers also bombed militants’ suspected hideouts in other small villages of Mamond Tehsil and Mulla Said Banda and Pashat in Salarzai Tehsil.

I'm not sure how effective these operations are in actually killing militants but they are eroding the infrastructure of the militants' organisations. Hence:

This correspondent on Sunday visited Bajaur Agency’s troubled spots including Seway, where the militants headquarters was located and a so-called Islamic court had been established, Chopatra, the hometown of militants’ commander Maulana Faqir Mohammad, Badan village, the hometown of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Maulvi Omar, and several other places, which were once the strongholds of the Taliban fighters and where their armed men were once publicly checking vehicles at roadside checkpoints.

Ah, but wait, they seem to be fairly effective in targetting militants as well:

The militants admitted that they had suffered heavy losses due to choppers and warplanes and now the thundering voice of gunship choppers created panic in the hearts of many of their colleagues.

Just as a note, I blogged a couple of days ago about Joeseph Biden's proposal for dealing with Pakistan. One of the things he stressed was the need for America to do something concrete to help everyday Pakistanis:

When U.S. aid makes a real difference in people's lives, the results are powerful. In October 2005, after a devastating earthquake, American military helicopters delivering relief did far more to improve relations than any amount of arms sales or debt rescheduling.

Well, 250,000 internally displaced refugees sounds like a major humanitarian crisis to me and seeing as opponents of the military operation in Bajur are blaming all the violence on America, it strikes me as a good time for the Americans to maybe step up and help out with the refugee crisis. Why not have a "reminder that America cares"? In a case like this where all they have to do is cough up some measly amounts of money and basic necessities such as food and water and not make any long-term commitments, it shouldn't be too difficult to make a difference at a low cost.

I don't actually hold out much hope that the US government will actually do anything here, since it has very demonstrably shown not only that it doesn't care, but that it is unable to pretend to care even when it is in its own interest to do so.

But just in case anyone in the US government is listening. How about helping out the poor people of Bajur?


Rabia said...

Everybody supporting the army's current strategy should sit down and read about the success of the soviet airstrikes against the Afghan mujahideen.

"but that it is unable to pretend to care even when it is in its own interest to do so."

haha, yes. Hearts and minds and all that.

Misanthrope said...

Or for that matter read about the effectiveness of American airstrikes in Afghanistan, which managed to kill more civilians last year than all those killed by the Taliban and in Taliban/NATO clashes.

Having said that, airstrikes are better than artillery barrages which have been the traditional weapon of choice of the military. But not by much.