Russia’s response to the Georgian aggression against South Ossetia has been the central theme of the media for a week, and it’s scarcely noticed that the human tragedy in northwest Pakistan will probably be of no less great political significance. On Friday, the ninth day of a punitive military expedition against Bajaur Agency in the so-called tribal areas, over 100,000 people were seeking refuge. No one knows the exact number, which reflects the fact that there is no organized aid for refugees. An English-language Pakistani newspaper, The News, said on Friday that “several hundred thousands” were fleeing. News agencies reported that, according to the Governor of the North-West Frontier Province, into whose capital Peshawar tens of thousands fled, the number is about 219,000.
Many had to leave all their possessions behind, because the “security forces,” in their campaign against suspected insurgents, repeatedly used heavy artillery, helicopters, and fighter planes against villages. In addition, there are systematic expulsions. Leaflets are dropped from helicopters, calling on people to immediately vacate certain areas. The leaflets contain detailed instructions about how to behave, any failure to comply with which carries the risk of lethal attacks by the “security forces”: No vehicle movements after sunset. Cars may not be parked under trees, or in the shade. Upon seeing a helicopter, all refugees must come out of their vehicles with their hands up. Those who don’t receive leaflets or cannot read — a majority of the population in the area — are in mortal danger. Air raids on refugee convoys are not uncommon. Many families are fleeing on foot. Those who were expelled or have simply fled are not supplied with food and medical care. Tens of thousands have to sleep outdoors.
Bajaur is one of many districts in which such punitive expeditions have taken place in recent months. The “security forces” had already similarly wreaked havoc in Swat and Hang before, outside the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, in the North-West Frontier Province. As the Pakistani media reported on Friday, now thousands are fleeing from Mohmand Agency, on the southern border of Bajaur. which it is suspected the “security forces” will strike next.
These military actions cannot be called appropriate or effective even for the purpose of the US/NATO counter-insurgency campaign. Their function is essentially to demonstrate to Washington, which is more and more aggressively putting pressure on Islamabad, that things are under control and there is no reason for a US intervention in Pakistan.