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Freeze on Pakistani military aid raises questions over US abuse policy

Alleged human rights violations have forced the US to withhold aid to a number of Pakistani military units. While widely praised by rights campaigners, some question Washington's arbitrary record of punishing abusers.

Pakistan army patrols in Mingora, capital of Pakistan's troubled Swat Valley

Most of the alleged abuses took place in the Swat region

The Pakistani military units, accused of abuses including extra-judicial killings and torture, are among those supported by the Obama administration in the fight against the Taliban and Islamist extremists in the restive tribal regions along the Hindu Kush.

In accordance with the so-called Leahy Amendment - legislation brought in by Senator Patrick Leahy in 1997 which prevents the US from providing assistance to foreign armed forces suspected of committing atrocities - Washington will suspend training and equipment for about a half-dozen Pakistani Army units.

The cut will specifically affect Pakistani special operations forces which have carried out attacks on the Taliban in Pakistan's Swat Valley, including a large offensive targeting insurgents in 2009, and a similar push in South Waziristan earlier this year. Washington sources revealed that other Pakistani units are also under investigation over alleged abuses and could join the list of those already cut off from US aid.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a non-governmental organization, 282 extra-judicial killings were committed in the Swat region during the 2009 offensive, including the killing and torture of civilians and unarmed Taliban prisoners. It is also claimed that around 3,000 unacknowledged suspects are being held without counsel in temporary prisons in the region.

"We do not know at this time the specific allegations against each unit," Maria McFarland, deputy director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Washington, told Deutsche Welle.

"However, HRW has received credible reports of numerous cases of extrajudicial executions, torture, and mistreatment by the Pakistani Army in the Swat valley. We have also documented cases of collective punishment against civilians related to persons the Army suspects of being Taliban militants. We have been urging the United States for several months to apply the Leahy Law to the responsible units."

"We know that the abuses by the Pakistani Army were the subject of intense debate and concern within the US government," she added. "The evidence of such abuses is substantial, and Pakistan has made no effort to bring those responsible to justice. The US is right to cut off responsible units and insist on meaningful investigations and accountability."

Crackdown in Swat, South Waziristan lead to abuses

Taliban Station in Mata, Swat

Pakistani forces have been targeting Taliban insurgents

The US was forced to act after a video surfaced on the Internet supposedly showing soldiers in Pakistani military uniforms executing six young men wearing civilian clothes. However, it had been a long-held belief that Pakistani units had been killing unarmed detainees and their civilian supporters in revenge for attacks on army bases and police stations. The unwillingness to hand over prisoners to ineffective and corrupt civilian courts has also been cited as a reason for alleged battlefield abuses.

Pakistan's focus on the Swat Valley and South Waziristan has been honed through intense US pressure to deal with insurgents launching attacks on US and NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan. The counterinsurgency missions, which have included the targeting of Taliban and their sympathizers in the general population, have been deeply unpopular and have cost the army a great deal of public support.

"One reason why the United States is stopping aid to these units now is that the US military itself believes it is more capable of pursuing an active search for and interdiction of terrorist elements in Waziristan and other Northwest Frontier Provinces territories," David Andelman, the editor of the World Policy Journal, told Deutsche Welle.

"The Pakistani government has been most reluctant to give the United States the carte blanche it clearly wants to operate in these regions, in what the US believes is an essential 'hot pursuit' doctrine of terrorist elements fleeing western military operations in neighboring Afghanistan."

While the the unit-specific halt on assistance may be a device to force Pakistan to allow more direct US influence in the tribal regions, it is unlikely that it will greatly affect Pakistan's continuing offensive against the Taliban and Islamist extremists or Washington's broader support, an assertion backed up by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent announcement that the US will provide a further $2 billion (1.4 billion euros) in military assistance to Pakistan to cover the period from 2012 to 2016.

Arbitrary use of Leahy Act concerns rights campaigners

Indonesian Army soldiers board a navy ship

Indonesia saw US support withdrawn over abuse claims

Pakistan becomes the most high-profile victim of the Leahy Amendment in over a decade. The likes of Indonesia and Colombia have fallen foul of the act in the past - although some aid has been restored to both - but with the US focused on the battle for Afghanistan, no other country with such strategic importance has felt the effect of Leahy's law.

But while human rights campaigners support the US decision to withhold aid from the offending Pakistani units, many believe that Washington should do more to prevent abuses while some accuse the United States of applying the Leahy Amendment arbitrarily depending on its own interests and agenda.

The US just recently announced a massive $67 billion rearmament contract with Saudi Arabia, the largest component in a combined $122.9 billion weapons deal with the Saudis, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Rights campaigners believe that Washington's desire to bolster Saudi Arabia's offensive capability in the face of the threat from Iran - and boost its own ailing arms industry in the process - far outweighs any concerns the US may have over the kingdom's human rights record.

Amnesty International cites torture, internment without trial, summary execution and degradation of women among Saudi Arabia's long list of human rights abuses. Oman, the UAE and, to a lesser extent, Kuwait are also accused of similar violations.

The United States also continues to sell weapons to Israel, whose armed forces are regularly accused of breaching the laws of war and ignoring humanitarian rights. Israel recently sealed a deal to purchase 20 brand-new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets made by Lockheed Martin in a contract that, at $2.75 billion, is one of the largest arms purchases ever made by the state.

Lack of transparency masking processes related to abuse

Members of a US-backed Colombian Army counter-narcotics battalion

Colombian units fighting drug cartels are backed by the US

"There have been a number of such instances where the US has turned a blind eye to abuses by foreign armies it supports," said David Andelman. "The Colombian military and its pursuit of narco-gangs and traffickers come immediately to mind. Certainly there have also been a number of instances in Iraq and Afghanistan."

"In the case of Colombia, the justification is that it was difficult to identify specific units involved in the abuse and that the Colombian military was essential in the efforts to interdict drug production and trafficking in the country," he added.

Robert Brigham, professor of History and International Relations at Vassar College in New York, concurs that the determination of abusive units remains a huge problem.

"If one unit is found guilty of human rights abuses, but it trains and has integrated operations with another unit that has not been found guilty, the aid continues," he told Deutsche Welle. "Also, there is nothing to stop private contractors from dealing with units that have been labelled as tainted under the Leahy Law and this remains a huge problem."

HRW's Maria McFarland explained that a lack of transparency in the US often clouds the processes and decisions taken by government departments responsible for approving or denying military aid.

"To justify decisions to continue funding abusive units, US officials often argue that the Leahy Law and other human rights conditions are in fact satisfied for various reasons," she said.

"With regard to some streams of assistance, managed by the Defense Department, the law allows an exception for 'extraordinary circumstances.' However, the process by which the Departments of State and Defense vet units for US aid is not very transparent, and it is often not clear whether the Defense Department decided to apply an exception, or on what basis there was a decision to continue funding units against which there are serious allegations."

Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge

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