Pakistan’s war against the Taliban has a hidden cost
Galvanized by the country’s growing outrage over repeated and large scale terror attacks, the Pakistani Army and paramilitary groups stepped up their fight with the Tehrik-i-Taliban, also known as the TTP, in 2014.
The Army’s national military offensive, Operation Zarb-e-Azb, sought to dismantle the terror outlet that had cast a large and sinister shadow over much of the country since its formation in 2007. Two years on, the Army has virtually emptied the country’s once impenetrable northwestern tribal regions of TTP militants, and with support from American drone strikes, leveled much of its territory too. In September, two years after Operation Zarb-e-Azb began, the Army proudly proclaimed over 4,000 kilometers in the tribal areas had been cleared of terrorist hideouts.
But within this narrative of vigilance and victory, the Army and its paramilitary groups have been able to operate with near impunity in their war against the Taliban, and as we learned while filming VICE documentary series TERROR with Suroosh Alvi, it has come at a cost.
The Operation Zarb-e-Azb offensive has cost nearly 2 million civilians their ancestral homes. A majority of these civilians now live in makeshift camps scattered across the country or have resettled to cities, namely Karachi, where they face constant and harsh policing from the city’s police and Army Rangers.
The Army has paired this aggressive military offensive with an equally aggressive media campaign. The Inter-Services Public Relations, the media branch of the Pakistani Army, has fashioned a hero out of General Raheel Sharif in its war on terror. As head of the ISPR, he has travelled across the country for press ops and promised the war-weary public he will avenge those killed in terrorist attacks.
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“The Pakistani people are so fed up of the violence that they’re looking the other way and saying ‘whatever you do, just make us safe, we’ll live with that,’ said Moeed Yusuf of U.S. Institute of Peace. “So that’s how they’ve approached this.”
Since Operation Zarb-e-Azb began, rumblings of extrajudicial killings at the hands of the Karachi Police and Army Rangers have only increased. The majority of paramilitary raids take place in Karachi’s ethnically tribal slums and amount to sweeping entire neighborhoods mostly filled with refugees from the the same tribal areas, where Army officials fear TTP are hiding in plain sight.
While filming TERROR, we rode along with the Karachi Police, Army Rangers and counter-terrorism Crime Investigation Department, or CID, on their raids in neighborhoods across the mega-city. In almost every single unit, we heard the same refrain: we’re going to get these guys, dead or alive.
Police impunity and extrajudicial killings are nothing new in Pakistan, unfortunately. According to a 2016 Human Rights Watch report, “several police officers … openly admitted to the practice of false or faked ‘encounter killings,’ in which police stage an armed exchange to kill an individual already in custody.” The “encounter killing” tactic is now being applied to suspected Taliban supporters in the dense slums of Karachi.
We heard a similar philosophy from the chief of police in the Karachi neighborhood of Baldia town. “If you take them to the courts, they are released. The judge asks for witnesses and tells us our evidence is incomplete,” senior police official Aijaz Hashmi said. “We try to capture the suspect, and if he fights back, he will get killed. Ninety percent of them are killed.”
In lieu of a judicial process that ensures civilians get their due process, the police are playing both judge and jury. And with support coming from the country’s leaders like former president President Pervez Musharraf, it’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
“I frankly wouldn’t like to openly endorse extrajudicial killing or anything, but at the same time these policemen, they are facing these militants who are out there to kill them,” Musharraf said. “So you have to kill them before they kill you.”
It remains to be seen if the country’s military and police forces’ aggressive counter-terror offensive will permanently stem the tide of terror or provide new fodder to an enemy on the lookout for disenfranchised youth.
“There is no way of getting rid of the TTP now, I’m sorry to say,” Anatol Lieven, author of Pakistan: A Hard Country told VICE News. “I fear that extremism and terrorism will be there for the foreseeable future.”
The TTP and the civilians from the tribal areas often targeted in these broad police sweeps both ascribe to an ancient ethical code of conduct called Pakhtunwali. The code rests on four main pillars: shame, honor, taunt, and finally, revenge. The danger of Pakistan’s tactic of fighting terror with extrajudicial policing and unchecked violence lies in the Pashtun tenant of revenge — kill my brother, and I’m obliged to kill yours.
The Army’s latest counter-terror efforts may draw big numbers and satisfy the general public’s hunger for justice in the war on terror, but it may just as well create a new class of disenfranchised young men whom the TTP will no doubt seek to recruit.