The World

Pakistan’s New Security Operation Is a Humanitarian Crisis. The U.S. Is Partially To Blame.

Pakistani relatives help an injured tribesman as he arrives from North Waziristan, following operations by the Pakistan army, for treatment at a hospital in the town of Bannu on May 23, 2014.

Photo by A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images

Two weeks ago Pakistani security forces launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a major offensive against militants in Waziristan, a region near the country’s border with Afghanistan. Just days before, the CIA had conducted its first drone strikes in nearly half a year against militants of the Haqqani network based in the very same region. The Pakistani government wants you to believe this was a coincidence.

“Are you implying that these attacks have been coordinated?” Pakistani Foreign Minister Tasnim Aslamm demanded of a reporter asking about the strikes.” If that is the case, then you are wrong. There is no way we condone these attacks. We have condemned them.”

The CIA, for its part, hasn’t said anything about taking part in Zarb-e-Azb, but the consensus among Pakistan watchers seems to be that the operation and the strikes are products of cooperation behind the scenes. “These strikes were almost certainly commissioned and supported by Pakistan’s military and intelligence services,” wrote The New Yorker’s Steve Coll. “It would seem unthinkable for the Obama Administration to act unilaterally with drones just when Pakistan was at last doing what it had long urged.”

The fact that neither the U.S. nor the Pakistani government—putative allies—has been willing to own up to its cooperation on this front says volumes about just how complex things have become in the region. It’s a world where, in the eyes of Pakistan’s leaders, there exist good militants and bad militants and in-between militants, and the only party they can safely criticize publicly with any consistency is the CIA, whose drone strikes, they maintain, are violations of sovereignty that do little more than kill innocents. The CIA, Pakistan argues, bears full responsibility for drone strikes and their consequences because the CIA pulls the trigger—never mind the fact that Pakistan has always wanted to tell the CIA where to shoot.

And vice versa. In an October 2010 press briefing, then-Assistant Secretary of State Phillip J. Crowley was open about the need for a Waziristan campaign. “We want to see greater action, particularly focused on North Waziristan,” he told reporters. “We have said that publicly and privately.” Earlier that year, Pakistani military chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had been directly asked by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and other American officials to combat obvious al-Qaida and Pakistani Taliban activity in North Waziristan as soon as possible. 

Recently, Congress elected to take the arm-twisting a little further. The version of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015 now pending passage in the Senate would have withheld $300 million in expected counterterrorism reimbursements to Pakistan had the military not launched a Waziristan campaign.

Pakistan, it seems, has finally gotten the message, and Zarb-e-Azb may ultimately be a strategic success. But it has already been a humanitarian disaster.

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. 

None of this should be a surprise to American officials. In 2009 a similar offensive, Operation Rah-e Rast, was launched against militants in the Swat Valley region bordering Waziristan. Five years later the death count for civilians during the operation is still anyone’s guess. More than 2 million people were displaced in an exodus from the region that was compared by U.N. officials to 1994’s refugee crisis in Rwanda. This time around, Pakistan’s polio crisis has complicated the outflow of the displaced even further, as aid workers rush to vaccinate thousands of the unimmunized before they scatter across the country. 

Fortunately, these efforts could be helped by the $8 million in aid for the displaced pledged by USAID late last week. Additionally, recent history suggests that the Obama administration could be forthcoming with more money in the near future: After Operation Rah-e Rast, the U.S. pledged $110 million in aid for refugees from the Swat Valley. But, as is the case with much U.S. aid to Pakistan, it’s difficult to ascertain where exactly that money went. Moreover, the amount was dwarfed by the $989 million in “security-related” aid given to Pakistan in fiscal year 2009—money that was presumably used in the operations that displaced the refugees in the first place. 

That year, then-Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke called the notion that the United States deserved direct blame for the unfolding humanitarian situation in the Swat Valley “ludicrous.” This was fair. It also would have been fair to ask where U.S. culpability for the civilian toll incurred by its Pakistani allies begins—a question made especially relevant by Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a campaign American officials have long wanted Pakistan to carry out. If the Obama administration really does have an obligation to continue the fight against the Taliban alongside Pakistan, it stands to reason that it has an additional obligation to minimize the costs that fight imposes on innocent civilians. For half a decade now, that obligation has grounded critiques of our drone policy. It should also ground critiques of all the other counterterrorism strategies we endorse—whether or not the United States is directly behind the trigger.