In Slate: A Humanitarian Crisis in Pakistan

I’ve just published a piece in Slate about Pakistan’s newest military offensive against the Taliban in Waziristan, Operation Zarb-e-Azb. I argue that the United States, given how hard we’ve pushed for action in Waziristan, should be held partially accountable for the humanitarian crisis that now seems to be unfolding:

Over 500,000 refugees have fled from Waziristan into neighboring regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan over the past two weeks, leaving behind their homes and those too poor to hire others to help them move. Last week, refugees frustrated with the authorities’ spotty relief distribution network, long waits in triple-digit heat, and shortages confronted security forces with protests in the city of Bannu.

Meanwhile, a third week of jet strikes and shelling continues and the Pakistani Army’s ground campaign has only just begun. The number of casualties thus far is unclear, in part because the Pakistani military has banned journalists from entering the field of operations. Its own reports claim that 376 militants have been killed. No one seems willing to hazard a guess about the number of civilians lost.

The final version is missing some nuance that I had in earlier drafts and some commenters have identified gaps in the picture of the situation I’ve presented. So, to clarify:

  1. I think the Taliban & co. are really bad. Much, much worse than the Pakistani military. I thought this went without saying. Evidently, it doesn’t.
  2. I think the United States has painted itself into the most difficult of corners here. I don’t know what exactly we could do to mitigate the humanitarian effects of offensives like Zarb-e-Azb. Maybe we could work to ensure the Pakistanis get better training. Maybe we could negotiate in a way that would allow our drone strikes to substitute for more destructive air and ground attacks (difficult given that Pakistan clearly wants to protect certain groups that we’d like to target). Maybe we can’t do anything at all. My concern is that it doesn’t seem like the Obama administration has asked itself this question at all. It seems instead that it pushed for a Waziristan operation having already seen the humanitarian impact of 2009’s Swat Valley campaign and while fully aware of  the Pakistani army’s imprecision, its lack of discipline, and – another detail that didn’t make it into the final piece – its human rights abuses.
  3. Pakistan’s slipperiness isn’t lost on me. But I think the United States can exercise muscle here. They resisted acting in Waziristan. We steadily ratcheted up the pressure. And now here we are. I don’t think it’s implausible that we could use that same pressure to make Pakistan exercise greater caution in carrying out these kinds of operations.

In a Project Syndicate column earlier today, former Pakistani Finance Minister Shahid Javed Burki further outlined Zarb-e-Azb’s potential consequences:

…the army wants to clear out foreign fighters who are using the territory as a base for various jihads around the Muslim world. But, by triggering yet another refugee crisis, the operation risks spreading the terrorist threat to other parts of Pakistan, including its largest city and commercial center, Karachi.

…Even if the army succeeds in clearing out the militants, some of the internally displaced people, bearing battle scars, will end up in Karachi. They will be in no mood to lay down their arms if the municipal authorities fail to develop inclusive political institutions that give minority ethnic groups a fair political voice. In that case, the long-term consequence of the military’s North Waziristan campaign may well be more violence where it can cause the most damage.


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