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Residents of Tribal Areas Deplore Airstrikes’ Civilian Toll

Buildings damaged by shelling and airstrikes in Mir Ali, North Waziristan.
Residents in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas have strongly criticized the country’s military operations there, claiming that civilians have suffered most.

Listeners participating in RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal's weekly live call-in show, "Along the Borderland," said that Pakistani military incursions into the northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have mostly harmed civilians, while the Taliban and allied extremist militant organizations operating in the region have thrived.

Commenting on recent Pakistani airstrikes in and around the town of Mir Ali, Janat Rehman, a resident of FATA's North Waziristan district, said, "The [military] claimed to have killed Al-Qaeda militants, but in reality mostly young children and women were killed." He added, "After all we are Muslims and should not be treated as infidels in this country."

The Pakistani military claims to have killed some 80 militants in airstrikes across North Waziristan since May 21, although such figures have not been independently verified.

The beleaguered region's residents claim that airstrikes have mostly hit civilian homes and markets.

Sharifullah Wazir, a caller from the region, said that the Pakistani military committed unprecedented atrocities in North Waziristan. "The military claims that foreign militants including Uzbeks, Chechens, and [Arab] members of Al-Qaeda live in the region," he said. "I want to ask who brought them here in the first place? It was the same military that sheltered them here and is now committing atrocities against civilians."

Aman Afridi, another caller, agreed. He said that while the Pakistani military bombs the tribal areas in the name of fighting terrorists, but many senior Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders were killed or arrested in major cities across Pakistan. "Weren't they sheltering a senior Arab leader [Osama Bin Laden] in [the northwestern garrison city of] Abbottabad? Who was protecting the son of [senior Afghan leader] Jalaluddin Haqqani in [the capital] Islamabad?"

Unknown gunmen killed Nasiruddin Haqqani outside an Islamabad bakery in November last year. U.S. Special Forces killed Osama Bin Laden on May 2, 2011.

Former army officer Khalid Munir acknowledged that civilians in FATA are under a state of siege. "The civilians in the tribal areas are at a great loss because they are not capable of either standing up to or controlling the actions of the army or the Taliban," he said. "There is a war in FATA. The army, of course, is armed and will retaliate if it's attacked."

Munir said that Islamabad should have helped local civilians move out of North Waziristan before beginning the ongoing offensive. Military operations in neighboring South Waziristan and Swat Valley in 2009 gained public backing after Islamabad helped civilians leave the region before the military moved in. "Unfortunately, civilians will keep on dying in airstrikes in North Waziristan."

Nizam Daur, a social worker in North Waziristan, said that FATA's residents feel caught between warring sides. "There are two belligerent forces operating here. One [the Taliban] is killing us in the name of Islam, while the other is doing the same in the name of the law and the constitution," he said. "We really don't feel they are very different."

Daur said that a lasting solution to FATA's problems will require Islamabad to abandon its covert policies of backing some Islamist extremist factions. "There is a vacuum in FATA because there is no governance structure, services or justice," he said. "But the Pakistani military and civilian government can end this vacuum."

"Along the Borderland" is a weekly, hour-long Radio Mashaal call-in show known for interactive debates on social and political issues. Every Tuesday millions of listeners in the Pakistani borderlands of the FATA, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces tune in to the show.