The Growing Humanitarian Crisis in Pakistan

By John Knefel

Displaced Pakistani civilians in the North Waziristan tribal area push wheelbarrows loaded with relief supplies at a World Food Programme distribution point in the town of Bannu on June 27, 2014. HASHAM AHMED/AFP/Getty Images

Roughly half a million people have been displaced by the Pakistani government's military offensive into the tribal area of North Waziristan, and all signs show that the crisis will only worsen in the coming days and weeks. Many of the internally displaced people (IDPs) have sought refuge in nearby border towns, such as Bannu, and apparently have largely avoided government-established camps. The United Nations refugee agency has estimated that more than 180,000 of the effected people are children.

As the humanitarian crisis grows, there is increasing concern that Pakistan hasn't done enough to minimize harm to civilians as a result of the operation. “The military has not given enough time for evacuation,” independent journalist Taha Siddiqui told VICE in an email. “More than half a million people escaped, many on foot, but were given only a few days of curfew relaxation, and therefore enough care was not exercised in this mass exodus to avoid any mishaps. Yesterday I encountered many IDPs in Bannu whose children had died on the way due to no help from the government during their evacuation in the heat, which is unbearable.”

The operation, dubbed Zarb-i-Azb, began on June 15 following the breakdown in peace negotiations between the government and the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) after an attack on the Karachi airport by the TTP and Uzbek militants. That attack left 30 dead—including all ten militants—and served as a catalyst for the military to carry out the long-promised assault in North Waziristan, home to hundreds of thousands of civilians as well as a complicated constellation of militant and insurgent groups.

The State Department praised the operation shortly after it began. “We have long supported Pakistan’s efforts to extend their sovereignty and stability throughout their country,” spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a press conference. When asked by VICE on June 27 whether the government of Pakistan was doing enough to address the crisis, State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf praised the government's efforts. “The Pakistani government is working hard to address the IDP crisis, and has taken steps to ease the bureaucratic requirements for humanitarian operations,” Harf said in an email. The US agency for international development has contributed $8 million to the relief effort.

The US has for years wanted Pakistan to dislodge the militant groups—some of which have attacked US forces in Afghanistan and some of which have carried out attacks against the Pakistani government—from their strongholds in tribal areas where the central government is virtually nonexistent. The Pakistani military and intelligence services have been vague about the precise target of the attacks, and it remains unclear whether the Haqqani Network—an affiliate of the Afghan Taliban who regularly attacks US forces in Afghanistan—is a target of the operation.

What, if any, role the US government is playing in the offensive is unclear. Harf, the State Department deputy spokesperson, said in a press conference on June 26, “These current operations are an entire Pakistani-led event.” When asked by VICE to clarify whether the US is providing intelligence or military advice to Pakistan's military or intelligence services, the State Department declined to comment further. A spokesperson for the National Security Council also declined to comment.

Over the course of the peace negotiations between the Pakistani government and the TTP, the US refrained from launching any drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas for more than five months, which was the longest “pause” of Obama's presidency. But just prior to the launch of the Waziristan operation the US resumed the drone strikes, carrying out three separate attacks over a period of one week. Reuters reported two anonymous officials in Pakistan as saying that one of the strikes took place with “express approval” from Islamabad. Pakistan almost always condemns US drone strikes, and the anonymous claims were disputed by the Pakistani Foreign Ministry

The drone program—which is run by the CIA—began in 2004 and has killed between 2,310 and 3,743 people, according to estimates from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The program began with what some critics have called a “bargain-chip killing,” when—according to the New York Times' Mark Mazzetti—the CIA killed a Pakistani insurgent (who posed no threat to the US) in return for access to Pakistani airspace. 

The drone program has wreaked havoc on civilians in North Waziristan. Last fall, Rafiq ur Rehman, an elementary school teacher from the area, traveled to the United States to tell members of Congress about the drone strike that killed his mother. I interviewed Rehman and two of his children on that visit, and while we spoke, his daughter constantly drew pictures of drones flying overhead. Attempts to reach Rafiq to ask whether he had fled his home were unsuccessful.

Whether the Waziristan operation will be successful in significantly dismantling any or all of the militant groups remains in doubt. Many leaders of various groups, including so-called “good Taliban” who don't attack the Pakistani government, were given enough advance notice to leave the area. “These good Taliban who attack inside Afghanistan knew the op was in the offings from what I have gathered talking to locals, reporters, and military sources,” Siddiqui, the independent journalist, told VICE.

“And so they moved out long before,” he added. “And seeing their movement, the rest of the bad ones didn't stay put. Therefore the 300-plus-terrorists figure the military has given to media is highly exaggerated, and anyway, with no independent media access, there is no way to verify it.”

Siddiqui said he's met with civilians who have been injured in the bombing raids, which he describes as “indiscriminate,” but adds that it's impossible to verify how many civilians have been killed or injured. “Most complain about the army's aggressive action against civilian population, but there is no way to verify whether they are saying this because they are Taliban sympathizers,” he wrote.

The assault in North Waziristan isn't the only recent attempt by the government to route out militants in the tribal areas. Pakistan's military carried out a much-criticized military operations in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan in 2009, the effects of which are still felt. “Even in previous operations in tribal belt,” Siddiqui wrote, “the refugees remain homeless to date, even four to five years post op.”

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