THE attempts being made to control the damage caused by the killing of more than 60 civilians in two bombing attacks in the Tirah valley can only be welcomed. But one hopes this is the beginning of a more elaborate effort to address some of the major humanitarian issues thrown up by the anti-terrorist campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Soon after the April 10 aerial bombing of a Kukikhel settlement in the Tirah valley, the local people protested that a massacre had taken place. Official spokesmen, however, persisted in claiming that two score militants had been killed. They discovered the virtues of silence only when the army chief, in a highly laudable departure from the tradition of ignoring public grief, apologised to the affected community for the loss of innocent lives. It was then possible for the political agent of the Khyber Agency to say that 61 civilians had died and 21 others had been hurt and that the victims would be compensated.
Again with praiseworthy speed representatives of the army chief have gone out to distribute compensatory cheques — Rs 200,000 for loss of life and Rs 100,000 for each injured person.
However the Tirah affair has brought the whole issue of innocent civilians’ deaths during the campaign against militants/terrorists out into the open. One does understand that some collateral damage is unavoidable in the kind of conflict the militants have forced on Pakistan’s security forces. But Pakistanis cannot be as indifferent or callous towards collateral damage as many foreign knights often are. For us it is a matter of vital importance that collateral damage should be as little as possible, because each civilian casualty makes the war against terrorism counter-productive and turns those around the victim into terrorists in mind if not in action.
Unfortunately the policy of not counting civilian casualties can no longer be sustained. It would be fair to start a system of probing casualties after each operation. Civil society activists who seem to have been scared away from investigative reporting should be provided with facilities to monitor such casualties so that remedial measures can be promptly adopted.
Another issue that needs to be resolved, because it is adversely affecting public perception of the campaign against terrorists, concerns the discovery of unidentified bodies in mass graves in the conflict zone and allegations that some militants might have fallen victim to revenge killing.
Quite a few stories have been circulating since some unidentified graves/bodies were found. According to one story the victims belonged to some militant groups and had perished in intra-group clashes. Another story offered no clue to the circumstances of the victims’ deaths and only referred to the possibility of the unfortunate men’s having been caught in the crossfire between the militants and the security forces. Quite a few observers had difficulty in ruling out revenge killing by the security personnel.
This is a highly sensitive matter and the tendency to form judgments on the basis of hearsay or to criticise the security forces by insinuation and innuendo needs to be firmly checked. There may not be enough reason to assume that the security forces’ discipline has in any way weakened. Still, the provocations and strains of combat suffered by the security personnel might have led some weaker men astray.
It is necessary to realise that no organisation can afford to live under suspicion of having done something wrong, however tenuous the basis of suspicion. The only option before the high command is to order a high-level probe to ascertain the identity of unclaimed bodies and the circumstances of their death. Once such an inquiry clears the name and reputation of the security forces not only will the latter’s morale go up the public acceptance of and support for their operations against the militants will also increase.
The third issue that has been agitating the minds of the people in the conflict areas relates to the lack of care in dealing with the young men who are accused of joining the militants.
It is no secret that the militants who entered the Malakand division from outside increased their strength by recruiting local young men. In some cases the latter seem to have shared their employers’ zeal for brutal ways but many jobless men were perhaps driven by their need of cash resources that the militants offered in substantial measure. Finally, quite a few young men are said to have been recruited by militants against their will.
According to credible witnesses from Swat, when the militants had taken over some towns in their valley they ordered each family to either contribute a sizeable amount of money to their coffers or offer a young recruit to their fighting force. Many poor families that did not have money to meet the militants’ demand handed over young boys to their tormentors. All of them fall in the category of reluctant militants.
There is no justification for treating all temporary associates of militants as criminals. There may be some against whom the evidence of the criminal use of force is available; they should be tried and made to suffer for their offences. The rest of them, including those who for some time subscribed to militancy/terrorism, must not be punished through arrest and detention because this could push them irretrievably into the militants’ fold. Instead they should be offered counselling aimed at reconverting them to the path of reason, peace and respect for the human person.
One does not know if any plan has been prepared to cure the minds contaminated by militancy and extremism, but one suspects the idea has not yet occurred to the planners and controllers of the anti-militancy campaign. It is time the deficiency was adequately and imaginatively filled.
Finally, there is the question of a fairly large group of detainees alleged to have been held ineligible for trial. Unconfirmed reports say the security forces have been holding several hundred militants and for some reason their trial is not considered safe or feasible or desirable. This cannot but cause alarm to all supporters of the rule of law who have been denied even the relief a statement of fact by the authorities concerned.
One still hopes that the matter is not as grave as the whispered references suggest but in any case it should be taken seriously. If there is even an iota of truth in allegations of attempts to circumvent the law and deny fundamental rights that even the worst criminals/terrorists cannot be deprived of, the authorities concerned must be made aware of the risk of Pakistan’s becoming an international pariah if the course is not immediately altered.