Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Three Thoughts On The Army's Missile Strikes In Khyber That Killed 70 Innocent Civilians (Correction Appended Below)

I have some quick thoughts on the Pakistan Army's missile attack(s) that killed about seventy civilians on the weekend in Khyber. Evidently, the attacks killed next to no militants; to the contrary, villagers who had taken up arms against the Taliban ended up being killed.

First, this instance highlights something I've referred to before, namely that relying on militaries to report their own conduct is begging for misinformation or, less charitably, lying. The Pakistan military is not unique in this case, as anyone who has seen the well-circulated Wikileaks video of the American Apache helicopter mowing down Iraqis knows well.

But the bottom line is that the grim security situation in these areas -- precluding the wide presence of independent journalists -- along with the army's proclivity for secrecy, means that we are unlikely to get anything close to objectively true information from these theaters of war. On the macro-level, yes, we might have something approaching an accurate portrayal -- we can tell, for instance, which areas have their residents returning to them or which areas are most conflict-prone. But the micro-level, the nitty gritty details of the conflict, like a particular clash or a particular bombing? In these rural areas, outside the purview of independent media? Forget about it. This is one of the reasons I refrain from commenting on day-to-day events in this war -- I simply don't know what's actually true on the ground. My caution to you, the readers, would be to exercise similar skepticism when told by the military that they've killed 32 militants here or apprehended 9 militants there. We don't know, we can't know, and that's the simple truth.

Second, I'm actually quite curious why these deaths haven't received more coverage in the press. It's front and center on the BBC South Asia website, but on the online editions of the major English dailies in Pakistan -- Dawn, The News, The Daily Times, and yes, the Express Tribune, there is nothing there referencing this news, at least as of 3pm Chicago time on Wednesday.

Instead, the papers are dominated by (a) the Abbottabad violence and the 18th amendment, (b) the China earthquake, and (c) the latest drone attack in North Waziristan. Now, it could be that this news has come out before the various papers have had the chance to update their sites -- Pakistani newspapers aren't like Western ones in the sense that there is 24/7 updating, at least at present. On the other hand, it's difficult to dismiss the suggestion that 70 deaths in Khyber means something very different than 70 deaths in Lahore for the media and pretending otherwise is to simply adopt blinkers as eyeglasses.

Third, and most obviously, there's good ways to fight an insurgency and bad ways to fight an insurgency, and killing 70 innocent civilians who were on your side actually fighting the other side is definitely in the latter category. I wonder if anyone in the military will actually pay for this in the very least, say by losing their job or being investigated? I won't hold my breath. I doubt the military will even go as far as the Americans in Afghanistan who (laughably) gave Afghan families sheep as a token of their contrition after killing five innocent civilians in a raid gone wrong.

CORRECTION: Both TLW in comments and Cafe Pyala point out that this news was covered by the Pakistani dailies on the weekend, so my apologies for the error in claiming that there hasn't been any coverage. But as Cafe Pyala notes, what's interesting about this story is that it has subsequently been buried. Read their post for why they think this might be the case.


takhalus said...

considering the dead include members of the Afridi Kukikhel tribe who have kids in the Pak Army it makes the situation tragic.

I am not sure if the army has suggested the media not talk about whats happened or if it's a simple lack of interest? The latter is odd because Waziristan is more remote in many ways?

Ahsan said...

Takhalus: I agree, it's very strange. One thing that could be different is that the missile attacks in Waziristan etc are usually directed by American drones, this one was by the Pakistan military.

TLW said...

there is nothing there referencing this news...Dawn, The News, The Daily Times, and yes, the Express Tribune

Actually Ahsan, this news broke on Saturday in the Dawn website, and I have to tell you, when I read a 100 people had been killed in the airstrike, I was seriously disturbed by it all weekend.

Sunday 11th April - Air strikes kill 100 in Khyber and Orakzai

dead include members of the Afridi Kukikhel tribe who have kids in the Pak Army

It's worse. One of the dead has Three sons in the Fontier Corps.

Families of serving Army members have been killed.

The intelligence fault has to be seriously investigated.

TLW said...

There is more bad news indicated by this strike as well.

The targetting of people on our side as well is not the first time.

You can go back over the last three years to find out the heartbreaking number of times the Army left the Salerzai tribal militias of Bajaur and the Turi tribal militias of Kurram in the lurch.

For what reason? There were times when they were fighting Afghan Taliban who had entered the area and these tribes had given them a decent fight in expectation that the Army would soon be arriving. Instead the Army sometimes bombed/artillery fired on them or literally stood by as a new "deal" had been negotiated with the Taliban and let them kill off the Tribal militiamen.

In Swat in June 2009, the army openned fire on an auxillary tribal militia that was siding with the government, either out of accident or to damage it enough that it did not damage the Taliban in that sector of Swat too badly.

The minor piece of good news?

Now that we have a civilian government with civilian autonomy, the political agents simply did their job and approached multiple families with condolences and compensation.

I shudder to think that if Musharraf had been in charge, the tribal political agents would be continually bypassed and paralysed whilst the military would continue to lie through it's teeth until the situation had worsened.



TLW said...

The callous non-apologies of the Army make me so ANGRY ! ! !

I'm from Lahore; and these our MY COUNTRYMEN!

TLW said...

Gracias for the addendum, Ahsan.

TLW said...

This is a serious tactical blunder.

The intelligence people have to be taken to task.

The military *Must* stop relying on air strikes and artillery.

This is a Human intensive task, and the military, para-military and police must use human resources, integrated with the social context - not distant arms.

Finally, we have to seriously look at political integration of FATA with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, at the pace of the people of FATA.

TLW said...

And the civilians need to take the lead and have some vision of their own.

Ahsan said...

Um, TLW, your thoughts are very valuable, but why don't you take 5 minutes, think about what you want to say, and just write one comment? Just a thought...

Yasir Qadeer said...

Incidents like these happen at times during a war. This doesn’t means it was done purposely. A lot of army personnel have been killed in the operations in tribal areas. Their families also miss their loved one. We must stand united in these times and not let small mistakes/obstacles created divisions among our lines.

Sheherzad said...

@Yasir Qadeer- what you refer to as 'small mistakes/obstacles' is actually the murder of about 70 or so innocent people. There is always collateral damage in war, but stupidity of this stature? I think not. Just for one moment think of the number of families destroyed forever by this incident.

TLW said...

Ahsan, point taken man.

@ Yasir Qadeer (and anybody who will defend this foolish and fatal mistake), Sheherzad covered it correctly with this counter-question:

There is always collateral damage in war, but stupidity of this stature?

Mr Ayaz Amir once said that any Jawans losing their lives should automatically have a plot in Defence handed to their heirs.
Maybe the same for the victims this serious blunder in intelligence?
And yes the intel man responsible for this mistake must be investigated.

And, um, zooming out to all of Khyber, we had two pieces of news;

1) Mangal Bagh's group on his illegal, still unjammed radio station half taunted, half enticed the Kukikhels, over their victimisation by the very government that they supported. As usual, he called them to his side.

2) How well is the battle going for the government if Lashkar-e-Islam is Ready for Talks with the Government. The pattern has been that these groups are ready to talk to the government only if they find themselves on the ropes. My recommendation to the government would be to improve it's ground intelligence (Seriously), begin a series of diversionary talks with Lashkar-e-Islam (diversionary for the militants, not the public or army) whilst jamming the radio station and then go in for the kill. Preferably to eliminate Mangal Bagh.

What I would Not recommend the government do is either make any "peace" with Lashkar-e-Islam in Khyber, or try to play off the second (yes there is a second) militant group in the Khyber Agency against Lashkar-e-Islam. Ansar-ul-Islam (the rival) is just as brutal and just as religio-political as Lashkar-e-Islam. We Played of Abdullah Mehsud against Nek Muhammad in 2004. When we finally got to Abdullah in 2007, well, combined with the anger amongst Jihadi circles at Lal Masjid, we and the world were introduced to Baitullah Mehsud.

At minimum, any militant with Pakistani blood on their hands must be captured or eliminated.

takhalus said...

TLW: Ansar and Lashkar were both essentially created by the establishment to stop the Taliban from encroaching into th afridi/shinwari belt. As usual they created a monster which turned on the them and the locals.

shehzad k said...

to be very honest, i really dont have any more sympathy with our pak army anymore---i am not necessarily talking about the average soldier but those stupid generals and our duffer COAS who is not man enough to step down. He should had stepped down last yr when GHQ was attacked and occupied but being the egomaniac that he is, nothing happened. He just conveniently says a mistake happened and thats it. No just compensation or anything, its basically like saying OK it happened, it happens in war (which is true) and lets move on now. How would he or the generals feel if this happened to one of their own children or relatives. lets not forget, its the army and ISI who created these bearded imbeciles, army,training and feeding them. if they hadnt done it in the first place, our country wouldnt be in this shit to begin with. And now with blackwater (sorry a bit off topic but nevertheless important)roaming around the streets of major pakistani cities, perhaps, our army generals and COAS should take a comfortable leave and retire in dubai or europe or some other place exotic like bruenei or singapore and let american army and blackwater takeover full control of pakiland and our nuclear assets