Pakistan’s Army Brings the Ultraviolence

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by Joshua Foust on 9/16/2009 · 5 comments

Hundreds of bodies have begun showing up in the streets of Swat. It doesn’t look good:

In some cases, people may simply have been seeking revenge against the ruthless Taliban, in a society that tends to accept tit-for-tat reprisals, local politicians said.

But the scale of the retaliation, the similarities in the way that many of the victims have been tortured and the systematic nature of the deaths and disappearances in areas that the military firmly controls have led local residents, human rights workers and some Pakistani officials to conclude that the military has had a role in the campaign.

Naturally, the Army denies any extrajudicial killings. But is this really all that surprising? The Pakistani Army leveled Bajaur—erased the town from the face of the planet—in order to “save” it from the Taliban. Indeed, civilians have been the biggest victims even of the Army’s halting advance through the Tribal Areas.

There are some successes they can count: just today, for example, they arrested Sher Muhammad Qasab, a commander figure of some sort in the Swat area. He’s the third they’ve nabbed, though Maulana Fazlullah remains at large.

Here’s where it gets interesting. There’s a growing debate over whether or not Sri Lanka indicates that maybe counterinsurgency requires a high body count in order to succeed quickly and decisively. And, after some pretty incredibly brutality from the Pakistani Army, they’re saying the area is clear.

Or is it? Supposedly the success in Swat has given the Army the chance to move on Khyber, site of a recent bombing that killed some troops. Which is great, if we can ignore the news of them regrouping in nearby Malakand. The Taliban are so comfortable they’ve abducted leaders who don’t allow their boys to go train to become jihadis.

Indeed, there remains a simmering question: can the Army actually do it? Naveen Nqavi just noted that it wasn’t the Pakistani military that killed Baitullah Mehsud—it was the U.S., shooting robot missiles. In the meantime, Hamid Saeed Kazmi, the Minister of Religious Affairs, was just attacked in broad daylight, when his convoy was chased by a guy on a motorbike.

And while the Pakistani Army is busy congratulating itself on how well it’s cleaned up Swat, we’re just now two weeks past a deadly suicide bombing on the Police Training Center in Mingora, Swat’s capital. So it is not at all a given that murdering a whole bunch of Taliban supporters is a reliable way of reducing their importance.

Photo: Swat River, Mingora, Pakistan

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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omar September 16, 2009 at 10:02 am

We had some discussion on our group( about this and I am posting the exchange below as it may be of interest, the context is pretty much self explanatory:
A lot of Pakistani professionals are keen to look the other way about these killings because they feel the army is now defending THEIR interests against the taliban; But this is the old problem of how you will stop them from using the same tactics against those closer to you? The army is doing what most third world armies do (I am not saying first world armies never kill innocents, obviously, many are killed, as in combat as “collateral damage”, but systematic arrest and torture and extrajudicial execution are RELATIVELY rare because the system still has some resistance to such arbitrary misuse of power and the general level of the society is different, so individual officers are more likely to think twice), which is why the army has to be closely watched and not given a “free hand”…In any case, from a purely tactical standpoint, this is not necessarily good because the army actually has no good way of identifying who is really a terrorist and who is not. Instead, in all such operations, they soon start picking up random civilians or entirely the wrong people, kill them, and then cover up their crime by labelling the whole family and anyone who questions them as “enemy sympathizers” . The end result is a worsening insurgency. Its not that the army WANTS to kill innocent people, its just the nature of the game that innocents are likely to get killed because the army has too much power, but not enough information (almost by definition, they are outsiders and lack local intelligence) .The same sort of things were reported from Kashmir where some goatherd was picked up and killed in retaliation for a militant strike; in many cases its not even a deliberate error, its just bad information, and then comes the coverup, and the attacks against “human rights people” who are traitors and wont let the army do its job..

Omar Saheb : Respectfully I don’t agree with your analysis…Some of the ‘human rights ‘ advocates and some in the left media (NY Times , Guardian etc) play the role of useful idiots for the cause of Islamist/Jihadi?Taliban fascists and murderers…Its strange but where were these human rightists and the media when Talibans were beheading Army soldiers and Swati civilians ? This kind of propoganda weakens our country’s drive to eliminate Talibanism/Jihadism/terrorism and the Army’s belated efforts to save the state and people of Pakistan from this scourge…

Dear T, We will disagree about this; you are assuming that the army knows exactly who is a terrorist and who is not, but in actual fact armies almost never know such things in such detail. Disciplined and well-led armies (like the British army or most of the US army until the evangelical nutcases penetrated chunks of it) have acted harshly, wrongly and illegally during counter-insurgency operations and things are likely to be much worse when the army in question is led by OUR generals and used to zero oversight. IF there was some way to identify the bad guys and ONLY kill the bad guys, we would still be arguing, but you would have a stronger case. As it is, they are going to make more mistakes than we may wish to tolerate.
Anyway, I also want to add that your sudden admiration for the army and its drive to “root out taliban/jihadi terrorism” (which they themselves created) may still be premature. Army apologists (like ahmed qureshi) are supporting the Swat operation, but still want to keep and use jihadi proxies against India and “good taliban” in afghanistan. And of course, they still think they know best when it comes to domestic politics. If you let them get away with massive human rights abuses, you may regret it when they turn around and decide to once again “correct the kibla of the country” using the same tactics that worked so well in Swat…They need to fight against terrorists, no question about it, but they need to be watched and brought into the circle of the law, otherwise new disasters may await us.

David M September 16, 2009 at 10:04 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/16/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

dennis September 16, 2009 at 6:02 pm

i would like to add, that if i was walking around there, i would have a hell of a time, trying to guess who was good or bad. as for the military being involved.i highley doubt it.they don’t like bad press. and if there involved, they sure an hell won’t like the outcome,if the word got out. if they think there hand’s are tied now.

dennis September 16, 2009 at 9:00 pm

i need to add.IF this was ARE army.

Sam September 18, 2009 at 5:36 am

What we hear from the ground is not just allegations of military involvement in the apparent epidemic of what we call ‘extrajudicial executions.’ There are also clearly Taleban reprisals going on, as well as attacks on the Taleban by Lashkars, and, in a few instances, simple personal and local and tribal grievances opportunistically playing out against the background chaos.

We still don’t see any evidence of a clear government — or military– strategy to ‘hold’ the area (after not fully clearing it). Still little policing, and no strategy of boosting the FC to perform this function. So the locals feel more exposed than ever to abuses by all sides.

By the way, in Pakistan, as elsewhere, apologists for human rights abuses seek to justify their views by blaming human rights organizations for failing to sufficiently condemn the other side. In Pakistan at least, the international and Pakistani groups were condemning the Taleban’s actions for a long time and pushing the government to do something about protecting its own citizens.

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