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Pakistan’s triple tragedy — Taliban, refugees, indifference

Friday, June 12, 2009   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

By John Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Poor Pakistan. Besieged by the radical Islamic Taliban militants, enduring waves of an uprooted population, and facing widespread indifference from the international community to its growing humanitarian plight, the South Asian state teeters on the brink of a wider chasm. Though the Pakistan army has dealt a serious blow to Taliban terrorists in the mountainous Northwest frontier province, the collateral damage from the successful military offensive has been over two million civilians fleeing the fighting.

Pakistan’s unruly Northwest Frontier province has traditionally been a lawless no-go zone for the central government. The region bordering on Afghanistan, and connected ethnically and often in sympathy to events in that country, has nurtured an militant Islamic resistance which is marinated in a culture of guns, smuggling, and chaos; the perfect conditions in which the fundamentalist Taliban thrive. Regions like the picturesque Swat valley and cities like Peshawar, have never comfortably coexisted with the central government, no matter who is in power in Islamabad, the capital.

History serves as a guide. During the British Raj, and long before the 1947 partition of Pakistan from greater India, these areas were viewed as wild and woolly, and only then tenuously held by the British through besieged forts and isolated outposts.

When the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan in 1979, a few million refugees fled into this part of Pakistan. During the 1980’s Pakistan hosted the world’s largest refugee communities, but nonetheless turned a blind eye to a myriad of militant Islamic factions who both fought the Soviets but later turned on each other and were equally manipulated by Pakistani military intelligence, the ISI.

While multinational military forces toppled Afghanistan’s Taliban regime in 2001 after it was linked to the September 11th terrorist attack in America, in recent years there has been a resurgence of the fundamentalists, which threatens the government in Kabul.

Now that the Obama Administration has reinforced the American troop numbers in Afghanistan, the United States is viewing Afghanistan and Pakistan as AFPAK, a singular security challenge. Washington is entering into a dangerous web of regional entanglements; the crisis is spreading and spilling over into already unstable Pakistan.

The redefined AFPAK conflict will severely test the mettle of this already teetering government and civil society. Though Pakistan’s civilian government is inherently weak and beset by divisions, the military remains mostly cohesive, and capable of controlling Taliban, at least for now. An entrenched Al Qaida presence is yet to be uprooted

The military offensive in the Swat valley while knocking the militants off balance, has tragically displaced 2.5 million people according to the UN. Calling the situation “volatile and fluid,” officials say the fighting has internally displaced mostly women and children fleeing the fighting.

The phrase “internally displaced “ as compared to refugees who fled to another country, belies the growing human tragedy.

UN humanitarian officials stress that approximately 90 percent of the people were staying in the homes of relatives, families or community facilities but at least 250,000 are stranded in camps. John Holmes, UN Humanitarian coordinator appealed for $543 million to cover the costs of the widening crisis. Operating under the assumption that 1.5 million civilians will remain displaced of which 200,000 in camps will need assistance through December, the appeal is ongoing but falling on fallow ground. Only a quarter of needed funds have been pledged.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)says that there are now 235,000 people in 21 camps in the Northwest Frontier.

Sadly the “disaster overload” which has plagued the UN and donor states comes into play. With so many global crises and humanitarian disasters there’s a growing moral numbness of which issues to prioritize.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has warned that serious humanitarian funding shortfalls could actually run the “risk of a destabilizing secondary crisis.”

Given the brutal heat of Summer and the lack of shelter, sufficient water and food, the domestic problem could widen. Moreover in parallel to Pakistan’s inherent instability, there’s the role of its nuclear arsenal, which brings nightmarish concerns to many policymakers both in neighboring India and the West. The conflict is far from over.

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