ISLAMABAD -- Abir Mohammed, a
refugee from Bajaur, says that the battles which raged in his home province
since 2008 have dramatically changed his life. We met him in a crowded
Islamabad cafe where he politely approached customers, offering to
shine their shoes. He isn't accustomed to shoeshine work. But, he
needs to earn as much money as possible before reuniting with family
members who await him, near Peshawar, in a tent encampment for displaced
Formerly, he lived with his wife, his five children, his mother and
four brothers in a home near the Afghanistan border. "We were very
satisfied with our life," says Abir Mohammed. "My brothers and I
cultivated wheat crops and maintained orchards." His land is full
of rich soil. "But, in these days," says Abir, "due to disasters
and lack of water and electricity, there is no chance of cultivating
In late January, 2010, Pakistani military and paramilitary units launched
a major military operation in Bajaur, one of Pakistan's seven Federally
Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA). Jane's Defense News (Feb. 2,
2010) reported that 30,000 troops conducted the drive into Bajaur, accompanied
by artillery, tanks and five military helicopters.
Battles with militants in Bajaur date back to late 2008 when "some
8,000 troops including a full brigade from the regular Pakistan Army,
fought insurgents who had become so entrenched that they were running
a parallel administration." ("In Bajour, Pakistan says U.S. needs
to do more" by Myra MacDonald, Reuters). Now, the Pakistani army claims
to have cleared out all of the militants. News reports have shown collections
of weapons found by Pakistani soldiers. Pakistani military officials
point to networks of tunnels and cave dwellings, impervious to aerial
bombardment, that are now empty.
Many Pakistanis, including some Pakistani military officials, feel astounded
by the U.S. government suggestion that Pakistan should do more to dislodge
militants from strongholds in FATA and in other parts of Pakistan. Myra
Mac Donald, reporting for Reuters, quotes a Pakistani Army officer,
Colonel Nauman Saeed, insisting that following Pakistani army operations
in Bajaur U.S. forces in Afghanistan allowed about 700 militants to
escape into the neighboring Kunar province. "In their language,
they need to 'do more'," says Colonel Saeed.
The Pakistani military says
the casualty figures and troop levels speak for themselves. Pakistan
has lost 2,421 soldiers fighting militants since 2004. In Afghanistan,
1,777 U.S.-led coalition troops have died since 2001, according to the
website icasualties.org. Currently 147,400 Pakistani troops
are stationed in the west and northwest along the Afghan border, fighting
militants, while total U.S.-led coalition troops in Afghanistan will
number about 140,000 when a U.S. troop surge is complete.
Meanwhile Pakistanis outside the military wonder whether there is more
for the U.S. and Pakistani governments alike to do that does not involve
deploying and sacrificing more troops.
For Abir Mohammed and his family, there's only a slim chance of moving
back into their home. When fighting first began, in 2008, some of Abir
Mohammed's tribal members had been murdered by the Taliban. For this
reason, although the Taliban warned them not to do so, members of Abir
Mohammed's family supported the Pakistani army. Anticipating a military
offensive, the political agent of Bajour encouraged all of the people
in Abir Mohammed's area to leave their houses. Collecting as much
of their valuables as they could carry, Abir Mohammed's family fled
across the border to Afghanistan. Two months later, while warfare continued,
they crossed back into Pakistan and headed to a camp for displaced people.
Abir Mohammed said that during the military offensive, Pakistani troops
indiscriminately hit civilians and the Taliban. The military drove the
Taliban out of his home, but then the Pakistani army moved in, and they
are still occupying his home.
Thinking he may have to give up on regaining his fields and orchards,
Abir Mohammed is trying to begin a new line of work. In Islamabad, he
hopes to become a cobbler. But, the women in his family are begging
him to join them in the refugee camp, where they are afraid to leave
their tents lest they violate the traditional purdah customs. They long
for their homes in Bajaur, but Abir Mohammed believes it is still unsafe
to return. Taliban fighters, reputed to have escaped to Kunar, could
still return and, as far as he knows, the military is still occupying
his house. As far as Abir Mohammed is concerned, the Pakistani military
could quite appropriately "do less."
Others ask: is there a non-military
solution to the problems afflicting people like Abir Mohammed and his
Students from North and South Waziristan studying at a university in
Islamabad emphasized that doing more to meet human needs for food, housing,
roads and, most importantly, education, would quickly diminish the Taliban
strength. "Look at me," said one student. "I am not part of the
Taliban. I am educated. Why would I join the Taliban?" The U.S. counter-terrorism
strategy in North and South Waziristan has relied almost solely on force
through U.S. drone strikes and Pakistani military offensives.
Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed of the Pakistan Muslim League says that
Pakistan has had enough military aid and that non-military solutions
are needed. He also advises that if the U.S. wants to help, it should
focus on concrete financial aid for education and health, distributed
through reliable Pakistani civil society groups.
If the U.S. wanted to declare war on fundamentalism, rather than the
desperate poor of the Middle East and South Asia that are so vulnerable
to recruitment by fundamentalists, it would decide to genuinely help
the Pakistani government "do more" to meet its population's human
needs, and a good first step would be to ensure that desperately needed
resources are not railroaded into maintaining military strength, a lingering
legacy in U.S. and Pakistani relations that traces back to the Bush
- Musharraf era. During the "Bush-Mush" years, the U.S. gave Pakistan
11.9 billion dollars in assistance, 8 billion of which went directly
to the dictatorial military regime. Not a single public works project
was initiated by the U.S. throughout that period.
Richard Holbrooke, the United States special representative to Pakistan,
has recently convinced the United States Congress that the 7.5 billion
dollars in non-military aid appropriated to Pakistan through the Kerry-Lugar
bill should go directly to Pakistani firms, thereby cutting costs and
empowering Pakistani civil society. This may be a step in the right
However, Senator Mushahid notes that the U.S. will give Pakistan no
more than $10.5 billion over the next 5 years. "This amounts to the
same sum spent on 2 1/2 weeks of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan,"
says Senator Hussain. "Meanwhile, Pakistan is paying the highest price
in terms of human lives." He's referring to military casualties, but
these are not nearly the entire human cost.
Pakistan is suffering from a very high rate of child malnutrition, with
39 per cent of children moderately or severely malnourished. Half of
the population in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city by far with over
15 million residents, live in squatter colonies and urban slums without
access to basic civil amenities. Load shedding due to electricity shortages
and the Value Added Tax (VAT) recently imposed by the IMF have led to
mass demonstrations in the streets of Pakistan's major cities. If
these are the conditions in the urban areas with more government support
and infrastructure, what must it be like for those living in the FATA
and the NWFP? What's more, the past year's military offensives have
left Pakistan with the question of how to deal with the displacement
of 3.5 million people.
Though many of the refugees have managed to return home to uncertain
and often frightening circumstances, hundreds of thousands still remain
in IDP camps. According to a report published by the Human Rights Commission
of Pakistan, conditions in the camps are tough. People are burdened
by lack of security, inadequate access to medical facilities, crushing
heat and food shortages. In many camps, foreign donors gave displaced
families bags of wheat, but, lacking facilities to cook or grind the
wheat, many families just sat on the bags.
Like the students from North and South Waziristan, Senator Hussain believes
that education is the way forward. "Education, education, education,"
he said, as though repeating a mantra. Abir Mohammed agrees with him.
A madrassa in Islamabad is educating his two sons, free of charge. He
feels sad because the madrassa only allows him to visit his sons twice
This former landowner and aspiring cobbler wants to secure a better
future for his displaced family. He has lost his home, his land and
his livelihood because of successive Taliban and Pakistani military
attacks. Two of his cousins were killed by drones and two members of
his tribe were killed by F-16 attacks. We don't know whether or not
Abir Mohammed would welcome a non-military solution to the problems
in Bajaur province, but when we asked him what message he would like
to send to people in the U.S., he didn't hesitate to answer. "Tell
them," he said, "please, that I need financial assistance to start
a business. And, I want to live with my family."