TIME Pakistan

Unbelievably, There Are Now Refugees Fleeing to Afghanistan

The Pakistani military’s offensive against insurgents in North Waziristan has sparked a humanitarian crisis, with thousands of Pakistanis concluding that Afghanistan is just a far safer place to be right now.

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The Pakistani military has begun operations against Islamic insurgents in the North Waziristan region, delivering the offensive that Washington has been requesting for a decade, and sparking a massive exodus of refugees — some of whom are fleeing to neighboring Afghanistan to escape the fighting.

Militants, who have long inhabited the mountainous tribal area, have found themselves the target of heavy artillery bombardment and airstrikes for the past fortnight, in what the military’s PR chief Major-General Asim Bajwa termed “the beginning of the end of terrorism in Pakistan.”

Reports began to surface on Thursday in the Pakistani press that ground troops had started moving into North Waziristan to clear out the insurgent forces.

Washington says militants have been using North Waziristan for years as a base from which to attack NATO forces in Afghanistan and to wage a terrorist insurgency against the Pakistani state.

Senior members of the Pakistani Taliban (the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan), the Haqqani Network and Al Qaeda’s central command — along with a smattering of militants from as far away as western China’s Xinjiang province and Chechnya — are believed to be holed up in the area. All are on Islamabad’s kill list.

“For the military, there’ll be no discrimination among Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, Haqqani network or any other militant group,” Major-General Bajwa told reporters during a press conference in Rawalpindi on Thursday.

The mountainous border dividing Pakistan and Afghanistan has been home to martial tribes for centuries. However, the presence of heavily armed insurgents and foreign jihadis is the notorious legacy of American and Saudi intelligence agencies, who used the fighters as proxy forces during the clandestine war with Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan in the 1980s.

“This is famously the powder keg, which has led to everything going wrong in the region and the beginning of heavily armed militant Islam,” William Dalrymple, the historian and author of nine books on South Asia, tells TIME. “Obviously in retrospect [it’s] one of the great mistakes of American foreign policy.”

The Pakistani secret service (ISI) is alleged to have helped insurgent elements fleeing the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, using those militant groups to maintain pressure on the newly formed government in Kabul, which they believed harbored pro-Indian sensibilities.

“The Pakistan Army, or elements within ISI, always continued to support the Taliban as a way of getting rid of the Karzai government and a way of installing a pro-Pakistani Taliban regime in Kabul,” says Dalrymple.

That policy appears to have backfired. In 2007, the Pakistani Taliban launched a fresh insurgency against Islamabad that to date has been responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Pakistanis and at least 15,000 security personnel.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif campaigned last year on the promise of peace talks with the Taliban, but any hope of negotiations has been extinguished by a recent string of humiliating attacks, including a brazen assault on Karachi airport, deep in the country’s commercial hub.

The perennially stretched Pakistani state is now attempting to deal with the massive humanitarian fallout from the new offensive. In the less than two weeks of fighting, more than 450,000 people have been internally displaced. Officials estimate that the number will surpass 500,000 soon.

In a bizarre reversal of the norm, tens of thousands of Pakistanis have reportedly flooded into war-torn eastern Afghanistan to escape the fighting on the Pakistan side of the border.

“The [Afghan] government estimates there are over 60,000 thousand for now,” says Babar Baloch from U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees.

The exodus has also ignited fears that the polio epidemic rampant in North Waziristan for two years could spread to other parts of the region.

Meanwhile, analysts have already begun to criticize the new military campaign for not being part of a broader vision of Pakistan’s future.

“There isn’t yet a clear national strategy,” says Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. That means “operations are going to be tactical at best.” He adds: “The civilians were not brought in at the planning stage. And they’re not prepared in any way to take over from the military once the clearing has taken place.”

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