Issue 49 - Article 7

Military-humanitarian relations in Pakistan

February 4, 2011
Zahir Shah, Shangla Development Society (SDS)

The role of the military in civilian affairs is viewed with suspicion by civil society in Pakistan as elsewhere. The country has experienced a number of humanitarian crises in recent years, both natural and man-made. The devastating earthquake of 2005 and the terrible flooding of the last few months are two of the most recent large-scale examples. Low administrative capacity and complex political structures and relationships have made it difficult for the Pakistani government to respond without the support of the military, and the armed forces have played a range of sometimes controversial roles.

The Pakistani military played a vital role in the rescue operations after the 2005 earthquake and during the recent floods. It is clear that, had the military not been involved, casualties in both disasters would have been much higher. The military facilitated relief operations by providing logistical support in the shape of helicopters, boats and personnel to deliver food and other relief items in inaccessible hilly areas or in plains inundated by floods. The armed forces also played an important role in the restoration of basic infrastructure including roads and bridges, and provided food and medicine to people left behind during the military operation against the militants in Malakand in 2009.

Humanitarian unease

Military-humanitarian relations need to be looked at in the larger framework of the political history of Pakistan, where the military has been in political power for almost 31 years of the country’s 64 years of independence. Military influence on civil authorities cannot be resisted. Military involvement in disaster response nonetheless makes many humanitarians uneasy. In Balochistan province, where the military is battling Baloch nationalists, no humanitarian organisations were allowed to provide relief to flood-affected people in 2007. People displaced as a result of the conflict are not given the status of Internally Displaced Persons, nor do they receive any assistance from the government or humanitarian organisations. No humanitarian or media organisations are permitted in tribal areas, where military operations against the Taliban are in progress. There is no credible reporting from the area as everyone is dependent on information provided by the government. Even casualty figures from US drone attacks originating across the border in Afghanistan cannot be ascertained. The situation on the ground will only become clear when humanitarian organisations and the independent media are allowed to enter these areas.

Interaction between the military and humanitarian actors is minimal. The military keep to themselves and there is very little contact with humanitarians or with the civilian population, fuelling suspicion on both sides. Civilians are routinely beaten and humiliated, and on several occasions humanitarian agency staff have been manhandled. During the military operation in Swat, people were forced to evacuate their homes at very short notice – sometimes only three or four hours. No support was provided for transportation and no guarantees were given that property and belongings left behind would be protected. Several pregnant women gave birth while travelling on foot to escape the military operation, and no arrangements were made to help the sick, children or the elderly. Houses thought to belong to militants were blown up in what amounted to a form of collective punishment. Meanwhile, the military is acquiring land for cantonments under compulsory land acquisition laws. The price offered to the owners is much lower than the market rate, but owners have no option but to accede. Compensation payments are inadequate to meet losses.

Humanitarian silence

None of these issues has been taken up by humanitarian organisations. Instead, when international humanitarian agencies see that the military has taken control, they then limit their own engagement. As a result, affected communities believe that they receive less assistance and feel abandoned by international humanitarian agencies. The return of IDPs in Swat started only when the military declared the whole district to be cleared and secure, yet at the start of the process humanitarian organisations were not allowed to work in the most affected areas of upper Swat for ‘security reasons’. After the earthquake of 2005 international organisations built several health and education facilities, but after the military operation in Swat, where more than 200 schools have been destroyed, not a single one has been rehabilitated by international agencies so far. The government’s rehabilitation efforts are cosmetic only. The civilian administration typically regards humanitarian organisations as alien and as following a Western political agenda. Meanwhile, politicians try their best to manipulate assistance for political gain.

In the aftermath of the militant uprising and subsequent military operations in Malakand, there was little trust in the military. Civilians, who suffered both at the hands of the militants and the military, found it difficult to differentiate between the two sides. As a result, the population at large felt alienated. Elected representatives  did not meet people’s expectations during and after the crisis, and had minimum contact with their electorates. Genuine leaders were sidelined, and it has been a well-defined strategy of the militants to kill influential elders and political leaders in tribal as well as settled areas. In order to increase acceptance within communities the military formed Peace Committees, but these largely comprise ‘yes men’ or onetime militant supporters; as such their credibility has sometimes been in question, and they have no standing in the community. The military nonetheless directed humanitarian organisations to work through Peace Committee members, in a parody of ‘community participation’, and did not give the go-ahead for any relief distributions or other interventions unless the Peace Committee approved the beneficiaries. Predictably, the Peace Committees influenced the selection of beneficiaries as a means to maximise personal gain, leaving out the most deserving people in the process.

Advocating and lobbying for the rights of people in such situations is a dangerous undertaking, and many who have tried to do so have been silenced or killed. This makes it very difficult for civil society organisations, whose main objective is to ensure that ordinary people’s voices are heard, to highlight issues involving the army. International humanitarian NGOs and UN agencies are treated better by the civil administration and the military compared to local organisations, as they have ready access to the international media. While international organisations dominate the clusters and working groups at the central level and have access to policy-makers, implementation is carried out mostly by local organisations. International organisations need to understand the situation in which their implementing partners are working and seek to influence the military wherever it is involved. International organisations look at things in black and white in light of humanitarian principles, but they need to understand that matters at the local level are most often played out in shades of grey.

Zahir Shah is Programme Manager for the Shangla Development Society (SDS).


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