As far as foreign policy failures go, the Bush administration’s tack on Pakistan is shaping up to be a doozy of a flop. The very objectives of the “war on terror” are being undermined by the situation on the ground and by Pakistan’s increasingly violent internal conflict—responsibility for which can be laid squarely at the doorstep of the Bush administration.
Washington has adopted a dual policy of strengthening Pakistan’s military capabilities through a flow of aid money, hardware and equipment, and personnel training. But at the same time it is lending this support, it has been at cross-purposes with the Pakistani Army, exchanging fire with its troops in September and conducting a Special Operations raid inside Pakistani tribal areas. Pakistani citizens, pushed toward despair by the clashes between their army and the resurgent Taliban forces, are increasingly turning against the already tenuous U.S.-Pakistani alliance. The plight of the average Pakistani may seem a distant worry to strategists in Washington, but it is far from inconsequential, because without the hearts and minds of the population, Washington stands no chance of winning its war on terror on any front.
Life in Tribal Terror Theater
The source of the two missiles that on a Sunday morning in August during morning prayers struck Zaman Khan’s house in Bajaur, in the hilly Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan near the Afghan border, remains unknown. It could have been one of the American drones flying in from nearby Afghan airspace. Or perhaps the missiles were shot from one of the Pakistan Air Force F-16s that, according to U.S. Principal Deputy Secretary for South Asia Donald Camp, flew 93 sorties in August in operations against the Taliban.1
Zaman Khan is neither a Taliban adherent nor a member of al Qaeda, but rather an innocent civilian caught in the crosshairs of conflict. A government driver in Islamabad, Khan was not home when his family house was reduced to rubble; unfortunately, most of his family was home. Three members died in the missile strike while the survivors—including Khan’s aging parents and his young sisters and brothers—were forced to walk for two days through the barren, craggy terrain before reaching Miramshah, a town in the adjoining tribal area of Waziristan. A local elder paid for their journey to Islamabad, where they joined Zaman in his two-room government housing.
To Khan, it matters little who is responsible for the aerial strikes. “I see no difference between an American air strike and a Pakistani F-16 attack,” he said in August. “What I know is that my family members have died and the survivors went through a traumatic, degrading experience. And there is no justice for this crime against us.”2
A little-reported fact in the United States is the profound and devastating effect the war on terror is having on a growing number of Pakistani citizens. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HCRP) estimates a total of 800,000 have had to flee from various battlegrounds in the war on terror.3 But unlike Zaman Khan’s family, many of them have nowhere to go and live in squalid camps with no water, susceptible to cholera and other diseases; the U.N. resident coordinator is seeking $55 million to cover the needs of 423,000 of them living in camps; government officials call it the worst displacement crisis in Pakistan’s history.4 In early October, the New York Times reported, “An estimated 250,000 people have now fled the helicopters, jets, artillery and mortar fire of the Pakistani Army, and the assaults, intimidation and rough justice of the Taliban who have dug into Pakistan’s tribal areas. About 20,000 people are so desperate that they have flooded over the border from the Bajaur tribal area to seek safety in Afghanistan.”5
Understandably, many Pakistanis are angry. And part of this anger is directed at the United States, Pakistan’s supposed partner in the war on terror. The objective of the war on terror is to eliminate terrorists and prevent new recruits to the causes of al Qaeda and the Taliban. But the civilian casualties and large-scale displacement are likely to spur the opposite. As Asma Jahangir, HCRP chair, said recently, “There is no gainsaying the fact that hardship caused to non-combatant population and perception of use of disproportionate force, which targets militants and civilians alike, will create more problems than it solves.”6
In one of the camps for internally displaced people at a school near Dera Ismail Khan, Mohammed Naeem despairs that the tribal people are being targeted from three sides: Pakistani Air Force and Army troops conducting operations against the Taliban and foreign fighters; U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan fighting, sometimes haphazardly, Taliban and other insurgents; and, if they don’t support the Taliban, by local warlords.
“But for the tribal people, the source of all evil is President [George W.] Bush, under whose pressure the Pakistani Army has had to fight against its own people,” says Naeem, who was a schoolteacher before he was displaced by the fighting.7
On the one hand, the Bush administration wants Congress to approve more resources to further strengthen Pakistan’s air and ground offensive capability to kill terrorists and control the situation. On the other, U.S. ground and air forces have been authorized by Bush since May to take unilateral action inside Pakistani territory.8
In response, a top Pakistani general said that Pakistan troops—who are financed in part by the United States—were to “open fire” on their U.S. counterparts, should U.S. troops carry out cross-border actions, though this comment was taken as mere posturing to appease an increasingly restive public.9 Few in Pakistan believe that the army—an institution that has received billions in U.S. military aid since 2001—either means to or has the will to strike back at its main benefactor.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan summed up the public mood: “Attacks in the tribal areas, the killing of civilians and violation of Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty by the US-led coalition forces … [are] followed by stereotyped official protests by Islamabad, threats of ‘befitting replies’, and the occasional summoning of the US envoy to the Foreign Office. Such gestures achieve little, nor do they convince the people of the government’s keenness to protect innocent lives or to assert its sovereignty.”10 Jahangir reiterated the plight of the whole nation, saying, “The Council is deeply worried that an increase in the incidents of terrorism and the devastation caused by them and the spread of militancy have blocked the country’s way to progress and the entire population seems to have been taken hostage.”11
Against this backdrop of widespread human suffering, which alienates the general public and fuels the already simmering anti-American sentiments, the war on terror provides a pretext and conditions conducive for religious extremists to spread their message and step up their attacks. Suicide bombings, unheard of in Pakistan before the U.S. invasion of Afgh
anistan in 2001, are now a regular occurrence. Official and public insensitivity—or, perhaps, lack of awareness—in the United States to the deaths of unknown numbers and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Pakistani people reinforces the image of a purblind America.
Also at play is a dangerous, and rarely discussed, difference in military goals of the two shaky partners. Washington wants Pakistan to focus its energies on targeting terrorist hideouts in the tribal belt, but historically, that objective is at vast odds with the Pakistani people and soldiery’s view of the purpose of their country’s military. Pakistan’s military defenses are built mainly to counter the perceived threat from India. That rationale is behind heavy defense spending and the building of a nuclear weapons program. The enemy in Pakistan’s military wargames is the historically hostile neighbor to the east—not its own people in the tribal areas.
It is this inherent gap in the two sides’ rationale for military cooperation that has engendered the current atmosphere of mistrust. It also means that despite a policy change by the Musharraf-led military top brass in 2001, abandoning the Taliban and rekindling the alliance with the United States, the Pakistani forces did not have the required motivation and military expertise to fight a civil war-like conflict in the FATA.
As a result, U.S. forces are now engaged directly in regular operations in the conflict zone inside Pakistan, in addition to their engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. The disastrous consequences of rushing into a country Washington has officially designated as a military ally for decades are already clear. Confusion has already sparked U.S.-Pakistan shoot-outs,12 and in the heat of things, it could lead to worse clashes. And the suffering of the Pakistani populace cannot continue to be ignored by U.S. officials.
This debacle will surely put the newly elected government in Pakistan to a severe test. Domestic political compulsions will dictate a tough, rhetorical, anti-American stance, even if the military is in no position to stop U.S. air strikes and ground operations. Opposition parties led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif are already urging a reevaluation of Pakistan’s alliance with United States and adopting other means of fighting terrorism. And without Musharraf, the Pakistani military, now free of the constraints of a direct role in politics, might start to rethink the rules of alignment with the United States.
Najum Mushtaq is a writer based in Nairobi, Kenya, and a contributor to PRA’s Right Web (https://rightweb.irc-online.org/); Qurat-ul-Ain Sadozai is a Pakistani-Canadian aid worker.
1. Statement by Donald Camp, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South Asia, before the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on South Asia, Washington, D.C., September 16, 2008.
2. Interview conducted by Qurat-ul-Ain Sadozai in Islamabad on August 24, 2008.
3. “Pakistan Human Rights Body Asks UN Help To Avert Humanitarian Crisis,” Southeast Asia News, September 17, 2008.
4. “New Plan Anticipates Worsening IDP Crisis,” IRIN News, September 10, 2008.
5. Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah, “Confronting Taliban, Pakistan Finds Itself at War,” New York Times, October 3, 2008.
6. Asma Jahangir, “Respect for Life First,” Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, September 25, 2008.
7. Interview conducted by Qurat-ul-Ain in Dera Ismail Khan, 28 August 2008
8. Simon Tisdall, “George Bush’s Secret Order to Send Forces into Pakistan,” Guardian, September 12, 2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/sep/12/usforeignpolicy.usa.
9. Mark Tran, “Pakistan Orders Troops To Open Fire if US Raids,” Guardian, September 16, 2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/sep/16/pakistan.afghanistan.
10. Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, “HRCP for Concrete Steps to Stop FATA Raids,” press release, September 9, 2008.
11. Asma Jahangir, “Terrorism a Threat to Existence of Pakistan: HRCP Council,” Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, September 23, 2008.
12. Ismail Khan and Pir Zubair Shah, “Confusion over Reports of Clash at Afghan Border,” New York Times, September 15, 2008.