The human cost of war on the Taliban

Pakistan's operations against militants have won praise from Washington but displaced thousands of innocent people

The latest chapter in Pakistan's war with the Taliban has been a humanitarian disaster for ordinary villagers from Malakand Agency, the region in Pakistan's lower Himalayas where the battle is now being fought.
Malakand was where a now-infamous peace agreement between the government and a pro-Taliban group was meant to see an end to the insurgency in exchange for a Taliban-style justice system.

The latest wave of a million displaced people join almost another million who, since last August, have already been made homeless by the war with the Taliban in other parts of Pakistan's tribal areas.

But numbers alone, unrivalled at present by any other conflict in the world, tell only so much.

"I cannot stop thinking about my neighbour, a widow with her two kids, who can't afford transport charges," says Zahid from Mingora, the Swat valley's largest city and a Taliban stronghold that is currently under intense army bombardment. "She might be killed during [army] shelling. Our area has been targeted for the last three days."
Displacement is not a new phenomenon in this conflict. Even before last August people were fleeing war zones in at least four tribal areas. Relief efforts from the government and the non-government sector have finally stepped up. Yet when the army launched this largest-ever assault on the Taliban, it and the government were ill-prepared for the highly predictable, massive flow of refugees.
In Washington there has been loud praise for the army's assaults. The perception is that it is finally cracking down on militants and there were few words for the displaced. Despite the many regional experts employed by the State Department and the almost daily reports on public sentiments flowing into the American embassy in Islamabad, a key propaganda opportunity has been lost amid the usual debate about Pakistan's stability and nuclear stockpiles.
The US insists it is seeking to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Pakistanis, a nation whose antipathy for America is close to unrivalled.
But, as Manan Ahmed highlighted recently, the US has always invested in Pakistan's military establishment as the only guarantor of stability in a country apparently always on the verge of collapse.
The fate of ordinary Pakistanis has mattered little to Washington over the years, or Pakistan's elite for that matter.
The scale of the death and suffering is such, however, that sympathy for the displaced has become a political necessity for both.
Last week US Congress finally passed the Kerry-Lugar Bill which aims to inject $7.5bn in non-military aid into Pakistan, including areas affected by the Taliban. A further $1.9bn in mixed aid has been approved.
How much of that aid will actually reach the neediest is still unclear. The rich still live well in Pakistan, and, as the economy founders, the bureaucrats have been ordered to slash public sector development programmes.
Don't expect army expenditure to be slashed, though. For the first time since the army began fighting the Taliban, there is overwhelming support from all mainstream political parties and the urban centres of Pakistan. At religious conferences arranged by the government throughout the nation this week, Islamic scholars denounced the Taliban as apostates. An "all parties" conference of politicians hosted by the prime minister also endorsed the army operations. That included the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif in a sign that he too can sing from Washington's song sheet.
Some, like religious leaders and the interior adviser, Rehman Malik, blame "enemies of Pakistan" for stoking the Taliban – a euphemism for clandestine interference by the US, Israel and India. This indicates that there is still much denial of the role played by local actors in creating the country's present problems ever since prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto officially made Pakistan an "Islamic state" in 1973 for political purposes.
Out of fear of attacks by Taliban infiltrators, most politicians have stayed away from all but the safest camps at Mardan and Peshawar where the world's media has congregated until the bandwagon moves on to the next story.
The sea of humanity ruined by this conflict deserve better than this. Like the families of those killed in US drone attacks along the Durand Line, they deserve compensation and a public apology. Under the tribal honour code of these parts, known as the Pakhtunwali, nothing is more respected than helping those in distress.
Like all military forces, the Taliban requires a military response. But planes and night vision goggles won't prevent grievance-fuelled radicalisation in the temporary camps of Malakand, Mardan and Peshawar that may well turn into long-term slums.
The Taliban's rag-tag network of warlords has been successful not because of its guns but because of the state's abject indifference towards the poverty, unemployment and corruption in places where often the only investment has been in religious seminaries.
The army claims to have killed more than 1,000 militants, but it is difficult to verify this. Many of those fleeing the fighting say it is them, and not the Taliban, who are being killed. For their part, local Taliban say they are far from vanquished.
"The army can't face us on the ground [due to the mountainous terrain] and we have mined the whole of the area so they can't come forward from their check posts," said a Taliban spokesperson from Swat.
This may be bluster, but the village communities forced to flee the violence may never recover.
"First I left my job due to threat of Taliban because they did not like women's education. Now I have to leave my sweet home," says Rukhsana, a schoolteacher from the village of Shamozai in Swat. "We survived [the army] shelling but we don't know what the future holds."
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