Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has termed an American missile attack in South Waziristan “unfortunate” and “counter-productive”, as his government had not been informed in advance. The attack on Wednesday, which was reported to have killed five militants, came only hours after the top US military commander Mike Mullen had promised in Islamabad to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty. Meanwhile, the fate of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the fighting in the region bordering Afghanistan is attracting more and more attention in Pakistan.
For months, people have been fleeing the fighting in the border region
Sher Ali's family is one of many. They have abandoned their home in the Bajaur agency bordering Afghanistan and found refuge in the city of Rawalpindi, just next to Islamabad. In Bajaur, the Pakistani army is fighting the Taliban militants. But more often than not, it is civilians who get hit, says Sher Ali: "They shoot at any child and any man they see, with artillery from far away. You never know if they will hit your house or my house."
The civilians get caught between the militant groups and the Pakistani or even US forces. For ordinary residents such as Sher Ali it has become difficult to discern who is on which side, which makes the situation even more dangerous.
"The situation over there is a mess", he says. "You can't tell who belongs to the Taliban, who is with the government. Others have come from Afghanistan or somewhere else."
More than a million IDPs in Pakistan?
More and more people are fleeing the conflict zones, the tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan such as Bajaur and Waziristan or the Swat valley in the Frontier Province. Their numbers are difficult to gauge, as they do not stay in large refugee camps, but with relatives and friends all over the country. The latest wave of internally displaced persons in Pakistan comes on top of already large numbers of internal refugees in Balochistan province, where the Pakistan army has been waging war against Baloch nationalist insurgents. Iqbal Haider, co-chairperson of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, estimates:
"The overall figure is now definitely exceeding one million, including the displaced persons of Balochistan and the Frontier Province. I am astonished that the world conscience is silent on this very, very serious issue. They help the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, but they are least bothered about the pathetic condition of the internally displaced persons!"
New US strategy
The military campaign against the Taliban has been stepped up over the last few months, amid stronger pressure from Washington. Both the New York Times and the Sunday Times of London have reported that US President Bush felt compelled to demonstrated his strength in the face of domestic criticism, and has in fact authorized commando operations in Pakistan even without prior permission by the Pakistani government. However, Pakistani troops are reported to have fired on US forces earlier this week to stop an incursion.
Admiral Mike Mullen, top commander of the US military, was promptly dispatched to Islamabad to limit the damage. But American military activities have already become extremely unpopular with the Pakistani population. For his part, human rights activist Iqbal Haider wonders where the the militants are getting their equipment from:
"They are all equipped with all the best of lethal weapons, including anti-aircraft guns, including mortars, including rocket launchers. How on earth can they receive an abundance of such lethal weapons which are not available in any super market of the world? They get it with the connivance of the US and the intelligence agencies!"
With anti-American sentiment growing in this way throughout Pakistan, it is difficult to imagine a military solution in the border region.