August 23, 2008
A major offensive by the Pakistani military against Islamist
militants in the country’s Federally Administrated Tribal
Areas (FATA) and North West Frontier Province (NWFP) has effectively
become a campaign of collective punishment against the fiercely
independent Pashtun tribes that live in the region. As tens of
thousands of refugees pour out of the remote Bajaur agency, they
are reporting indiscriminate air strikes and helicopter gunship
attacks, devastated villages and farmlands, and hundreds of dead
and wounded civilians.
Government troops were dispatched into Bajaur on August 6 to
seize control of the Afghan-Pakistan border crossing near the
town of Loyesam from militants loyal to Tehrik-e-Taliban—the
so-called Pakistani Taliban. Fierce Taliban resistance inflicted
significant casualties on Pakistani forces, forcing them to pull
back to positions in and around the town of Khar, the administrative
headquarters of Bajaur.
Since August 10, the military has stayed in those defensive
positions but aerial bombing and artillery barrages have been
used to literally depopulate Bajaur and areas of the adjoining
agency of Mohmand. After more than two weeks of indiscriminate
attacks against alleged militant positions, it is estimated that
300,000 people have been forced to flee from their homes—a
significant proportion of the population in the areas not under
The roads out of Bajaur and Mohmand have been filled with desperate
families attempting to reach relatives in NWFP or refugee camps
that the Pakistani government has established to the east and
north of the tribal agencies. The impact of the government campaign
is revealed in the few media reports from the area and interviews
with displaced tribal people.
Journalists for Pakistan’s News International in
Bajaur reported on August 18: "The major towns of the agency
like Khar, Raghagan, Hajilawant, Jar and others were completely
deserted, no sign of life was seen there... Some of the houses
and a religious seminary near Jar village had been dashed to the
ground after being hit by missiles fired from gunship helicopters
or jet fighters that were used in the operation..."
In another News International report on August 21, a
refugee from Zigai said he had fled his home in the Zigai area
because "the military helicopter gunships had started pounding
civilian targets". Another man said: "They [the military]
are not hitting the known targets of the militants but blitzing
the civilian abodes."
In an article the following day on the conditions in a refugee
camp near Peshawar, Fazl-e-Akbar from Loyesam told News International:
"Around 30 people were killed in our village during the operation
which forced us to leave the town."
A woman who refused to be named said: "I am in a miserable
condition here in the camp, but I cannot return to our home due
to continued shelling, which has already wounded my daughter and
destroyed our house." A new arrival at the camp said: "We
arrived here this morning as our village, Nawagai, was heavily
shelled by gunship helicopters."
The News International journalist described the conditions
facing people in the camp as "pitiable, as they did not have
the required facilities, including power, potable water, toilets,
Journalist Daud Khan reported in an August 22 article for the
Korean website Ohmy News that "the internally displaced
people of Bajaur said the troops did not target the militant centres,
which are located at stone throws distance from their bases."
A man named Gul Zamin, from an area near Khar, said: "Rather,
the helicopters and artillery target the civilian population,
resulting in mounting civilian casualties."
Pakistani officials claimed on Thursday that its operation
had killed over 480 Taliban fighters, at the cost of 25 troops.
There are no credible reports as to the number of civilians who
have been killed or wounded but the anecdotal evidence suggests
that it runs into the hundreds.
There is no doubt that the Bush administration is behind the
Pakistani government’s decision to wage war in the tribal
agencies. The assault on Bajaur was launched in the wake of Prime
Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s visit to Washington in late
July, where he was presented with US demands that Pakistan prevent
the FATA being used as a safe haven by insurgents fighting American
and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
In return, the Bush administration appears to have encouraged
former dictator and close ally Pervez Musharraf to step down as
president, which he did on Monday. The following day, the head
of the Pakistani military, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, flew
to Kabul for high-level talks with US and NATO commanders on coordinating
operations against the insurgents on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan
On Thursday, President Bush reportedly called Musharraf to
thank him for his support for the bogus US "war on terror"
over the past seven years. He then called Gilani to insist that
the Pakistani government intensify its operations against the
Since the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, the Bajaur
agency has been used as a base by the Afghan Hezb-e-Islami movement
headed by Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, which is the main
anti-occupation force fighting for control of the eastern provinces
of Afghanistan. This year, it has inflicted significant casualties
on both American and Afghan government troops in border districts
such as Paktika, Khost, Paktia, Nangahar, Konar and Nurestan.
The Pakistani tribal agencies of South Waziristan and North
Waziristan are the strongholds of the overall head of the Pakistani
Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, as well as the safe haven for the Afghan
Taliban forces led by Jalaluddin Haqqani. Between them, the two
Islamist warlords are believed to command 20,000 to 30,000 fighters,
who are conducting an increasingly effective guerilla war against
the US and NATO forces in southern Afghanistan.
Analysts believe the Taliban and Hekmatyar’s forces are
pursuing a similar military plan to that used during the CIA-backed
guerilla war against the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan
in the 1980s. They are gradually extending the areas under their
control, positioning themselves to disrupt supply routes to the
major cities and, ultimately, encircle Kandahar and Kabul.
The US demands for a crackdown in the tribal agencies to disrupt
the Afghan insurgency may end up plunging Pakistan into severe
political instability or even civil war. The brutal character
of the offensive in Bajaur is provoking outrage among the millions
of Pakistanis, especially in the Pashtun-populated FATA and NWFP,
who oppose the US occupation of Afghanistan.
Anger over the offensive has the potential to shatter the unstable
ruling coalition between Gilani’s Pakistan Peoples Party
(PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) led by Nawaz Sharif
just six months after it took government.
Sharif has threatened to leave the coalition over the PPP’s
refusal to reinstate a number of senior judges sacked by Musharraf.
The tremendous suffering being caused by the government offensive
is likely to trigger further calls for a break with the PPP. Most
PML-N supporters label the war in Afghanistan as "America’s
war" and oppose using the Pakistani armed forces against
Islamic militants in the Pashtun tribal agencies.
Jamaat-e-Islami, the oldest Islamic-based party in Pakistan,
is organising demonstrations by its supporters and refugees from
the FATA, denouncing Gilani and demanding an end to the military
operation. The Pashtun-based Awami National Party, which holds
the provincial government in NWFP and is a minor partner of the
ruling coalition, is under intense pressure to come out openly
against the offensive.
Yesterday, NWFP Religious Affairs Minister Namroz Khan denounced
the invasion of Afghanistan as a neo-colonial war for control
of Central Asia. "No one can deny the fact that Pakistan
and Afghanistan are the gateway to the rich oil and gas reserves
of the Central Asian republics," he said. "The 'war
on terror’ was started to gain control of these reserves."
The Pakistani Taliban is heightening the political instability
with a vicious campaign of suicide bombings against police and
military facilities in various parts of the country.
Two bombers blew themselves up on Thursday at the gates of
the heavily-guarded Wah armaments factory, just 30 kilometres
from the capital Islamabad. As many as 78 people were killed and
over 100 wounded. Most of the casualties were workers leaving
their shift. Taliban spokesman and Bajaur tribal leader Maulvi
Omar told journalists via telephone: "If it [the offensive
in the FATA] doesn’t stop, we will continue such attacks.
The Wah factory is a killer factory where arms are being produced
to kill our women and children."
On Tuesday, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the waiting
room of a major hospital in Dera Ismail Khan, a city in the southern
region of NWFP. The purported target was a police unit that had
been deployed to the hospital to keep control of the family of
a local Shiite leader, Basit Ali, who had been gunned down earlier
in the day. The family had gathered at the hospital to grieve
and protest. At least 32 people were killed, including seven police
and 14 relatives of Basit Ali, and another 55 injured.
The Taliban has denied that the attack had anti-Shiite motives.
However, the Islamist movement adheres to an extremist trend of
Sunni Islam, which views Shiite Muslims as heretics.
The attacks against targets far from the tribal agencies are
intended to demonstrate the reach of the Taliban and pressure
the government to call off its offensive. On August 19, Mehsud
offered to take part in peace talks, provided that the Pakistani
government repudiated "the pro-US policies pursued by the
However, the PPP-led government, which is just as beholden
to Washington as Musharraf, has shown no signs that it intends
to call off military operations in the tribal areas.