Sea of refugees

Published : Jun 19, 2009 00:00 IST



PAKISTAN has not experienced something like this before: a military operation, apparently being carried out in right earnest within its boundaries, causing human displacement at a level that the government and United Nations aid agencies are saying is next only to the large-scale displacement caused by Partition in 1947. The numbers of the displaced, in nearly four weeks of fighting in Swat and other areas in the Malakand region of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) between the security forces and the Taliban, are a staggering two million. This is in addition to the 500,000 displaced by an earlier military operation in the Bajaur tribal agency.

Of these, only 10 per cent, or 200,000 people, are staying in camps. The rest have taken refuge in schools and other community buildings in several districts of the NWFP or have been given space in community areas in villages. Many are staying with relatives and friends. There are instances of up to a hundred people staying with one family.

The numbers are constantly increasing. Although the camps themselves are well organised, the government is struggling to cope with the mass exodus triggered by its decision to fight the Taliban in Swat. The scorching heat of May in the plains has added to the miseries of the displaced people who are used to living in cool climes. If the tents in the camps are furnaces in this weather, the pucca structures of schools provide some relief to people who have taken refuge in them. But the classrooms are packed.

There is no place to put a foot inside any of the rooms, let alone stretch out to sleep, said an aid worker who visited a school in Mardan town. Fears of a disease outbreak are high.

Even the best-run refugee camp is not a pretty sight at the best of times. In Pakistan, the inadequacy of the government has been brutally highlighted in the manner of its response to the refugee crisis. Few of the countrys political leaders have visited the camps. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilanis brief touchdown at one of the camps and his photo-op with a baby came after two weeks of constant media criticism that government leaders were conspicuous by their absence.

Instead, religious groups have taken the lead in organising relief. Chief among them is Al Khidmat Foundation, the charity wing of the religious political party, Jamaat-i-Islami. Another United Kingdom-based religious trust is also reported to be active in the relief camps. The Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation, a charity front of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, recently designated by the U.N. as a terrorist group, was also spotted at more than one place in Mardan district, one of the main centres for the refugees.

Pakistans appeal to the international community for help has so far received a lukewarm response from a recession-hit world. The United States was the biggest donor with $110 million, but none of the brother Islamic nations came forward to give anything. China, which Pakistan regards as an all-weather friend, put up a measly $1 million.

The U.N. put out a flash appeal for $543 million; the Pakistan government says it may need double that amount to look after the basic needs of the refugees until the end of this year.

But Pakistan is evidently doing better with another awaited inflow of dollars, and is on course to receive nearly $10 billion in non-military and military aid from the U.S. for a four-year period from 2010 to 2013. This is by way of the Pakistan Enduring Assistance and Cooperation Enhancement (PEACE) Act, which was adopted by the House Foreign Relations Committee on May 21 and has been marked for the next stage, to the House Armed Services Committee.

The Bill, introduced on April 2 by committee chairman Howard L. Berman, replaces the earlier Kerry-Lugar Bill, which lapsed with the new U.S. Congress coming in at the end of 2008. It authorises the U.S. to triple its non-military aid to Pakistan up to $1.5 billion annually, or a total of $6 billion for four years. The authorised military aid for the period is $4.5 billion. The total estimated outlay for both military and non-military aid for four years is $9.1 billion.

The stated objective of the Act is to provide democratic, economic and social development assistance, and, separately, security assistance to Pakistan in order to strengthen the countrys democratic infrastructure, enhance its security and improve the welfare of its people. It includes helping Pakistan consolidate its parliamentary democracy, re-establish an independent and transparent judicial system and extend the rule of law to all areas.

It also includes promoting sustainable economic development and long-term infrastructure projects, including in the health, water and energy sectors; ensuring that all Pakistanis, including those in the tribal areas, have access to modern education and vocational training; and expanding people-to-people contacts between the two countries.

In return, the PEACE Act sets out some tough conditions. It expects Pakistan to ensure transparency and effective accountability in the case of all U.S. assistance and reimbursements. The U.S. will also take steps to improve Pakistans counter-terrorism financing and anti-money laundering laws so that they comply with international standards. It will ensure that Pakistan establishes a counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism strategy to prevent any part of its territory from being used as a base or conduit for terrorist attacks in Pakistan, or elsewhere, and ensure that the countrys madrassas are not used to incite terrorism.

Most importantly for India, the PEACE Act says the U.S. will help Pakistan meet its commitment not to support any person or group that conducts violence, sabotage, or other activities meant to instil fear or terror in Pakistans neighbouring countries. The House Committee deleted the original texts direct reference to India, replacing it with the more generic neighbouring countries, apparently in deference to Pakistans wishes. While concern has been expressed in India at this watering down of the Bill, other portions of the text make a clearer India link.

Making the case for the legislation, under the section Findings, the text of the Bill says that despite the killing or capture of hundreds of Al Qaeda operatives and other terrorists, Pakistans FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas], parts of the NWFP, Quetta in Balochistan, and Muridke in Punjab remain a sanctuary for Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and affiliated groups from which these groups organise terrorist actions against Pakistan and other countries.

From Indias point of view, the reference to Muridke, the headquarters of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, is significant. Moreover, the text draws the links among the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Al Qaeda and the Taliban pretty firmly.

In order to ensure that the money will not go down the tubes, the PEACE Act stipulates that the U.S. President must, on the basis of his determination, make a report at the start of every fiscal year that the Pakistan government is cooperating with the U.S. in its efforts to dismantle terrorist networks and that it is making progress in combating terrorist groups.

Among other things, the law aims at ending support, including from any elements within the Pakistani military or intelligence agency, to extremist or terror groups, particularly those that have targeted U.S. or coalition forces in Afghanistan, or the territory or people of neighbouring countries.

Cooperation also includes closing down camps in FATA and dismantling the bases of operations what India refers to as infrastructure of terror in other parts of the country. Muridke is once again mentioned. The Bill particularly mentions closing down terrorist camps, including those of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Jaish-e-Mohammed. The President must also report on whether Pakistan has prevented cross-border attacks into neighbouring countries.

After discovering that former President Pervez Musharraf had delivered next to nothing despite the U.S. pumping in $12 billion, the Bill wants iron-clad guarantees that this will not happen again. But the legislation still has a long way to go, and what is to be seen is how much it will get diluted along the way.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen have already written to the Armed Services Committee for more flexibility to the administration in assessing Pakistans compliance: The degree of conditionality and limitations on security assistance to Pakistan in H.R. 1886 severely constrains the flexibility necessary for the Executive Branch and the Department of Defence, given the fluid and dynamic environment that exists in Pakistan, they have noted.

It also seems that the U.S. may be prepared to take a benign view of Pakistans nuclear expansion, reports of which appeared in the American media in May. Admiral Mullen confirmed the news with a yes when asked a pointed question by a Congressman at a Senate hearing. It is unclear if the U.S. Congress, against the apparent willingness of the administration to turn a blind eye to the expansion of Pakistans nuclear weapons, will build safeguards to ensure that the money Washington is preparing to give is not diverted into this.

As of now, it has gone down well in the U.S. that the Pakistan Army appears to be waging an earnest and concerted battle against the Taliban in Swat and the other areas of the Malakand region in the NWFP. Indeed, the amended text of the Bill makes a reference to the ongoing operations and for the need to make provisions for the people displaced by these operations it is not clear if the hefty U.S. contribution of $110 million towards a fund for the displaced people will be deducted from the proposed annual outlay in the PEACE Act.

For the displaced, the agony is part being suddenly dislodged from familiar surroundings and being thrust into the confines of a sweltering tent in 45{+0} Celsius, and part the insecurity of not knowing when they might be able to return to their homes and in what shape they will find their properties. The army has constantly made use of heavy artillery and attack helicopters in this operation. It claims to have killed over a thousand members of the Taliban. Several army personnel have also been killed, including a major and a captain. There is no word on civilian casualties although the displaced in the camps have spoken of the death of relatives and friends. With Swat totally cut off to the media, there is no idea of the collateral damage in the war zone.

Commentators have been warning from the first day that unless the Pakistan Army is quick about finishing the Swat operation, the government could lose popular support for military action against the Taliban, struggling as it is to provide relief to the displaced people.

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