A report by a US pressure group released in Islamabad on Thursday (December 9) says Pakistan’s government is overlooking the scale of civilian casualties in its war against militants and it will lose credibility unless actions are taken to ease the suffering.
The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) says there were probably more civilian casualties in Pakistan in 2009 than in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Christopher Rogers, author of the study, said the number of civilian casualties – deaths and injuries – is significant in Pakistan, though exact figures are unknown due to insecurity and government restrictions on information.
“One of the more surprising findings was that civilian casualties in Pakistan are even greater than those in Afghanistan. There have been over 2,100 civilian deaths in 2009 from terrorism alone in Pakistan and a comparable number thus far in 2010. In Afghanistan there are about the same number of civilians killed but from all forms of conflict-related violence including NATO airstrikes, artillery crossfire between militants and ISAF armed forces,” Rogers said.
The study was based on interviews over the past year with policymakers, NGO officials, and over 160 Pakistani civilians who suffered direct losses from the conflict in the northwest.
Pakistan’s government faces al-Qaeda linked Taliban insurgents who are pressing on with a campaign of suicide bombings that have killed civilians, police and soldiers, despite a series of army offensives against them that started last year.
The UN says more than 2,400 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2009. CIVIC said civilian casualties in Pakistan probably exceeded the numbers in Afghanistan if losses from Pakistani military operations and US drone strikes are counted.
Rogers said CIVIC’s research and that of other independent non-government organizations indicate that the number of civilians killed and injured by drone strikes is higher than the US government admits.
“It’s almost certain that US drone strikes are causing more civilian casualties than the United States has thus far admitted. The US has claimed that there have been only 10 non-combatants killed this year, and from January 2009 to March 2010 it publicised a figure of only 20 civilians killed. By contrast, our organization found 30 civilian deaths in just nine cases that we investigated – all since 2009 – including 14 women and children,” Rogers said.
Missile strikes by CIA-operated pilotless drone aircraft have killed high-profile militants in northwest Pakistan, but Pakistan worries civilian casualties caused by the attacks inflame public anger and bolster support for the fighters.
Coinciding with the release of the CIVIC report, dozens of people, mostly from North Waziristan, staged a sit-in to protest drone attacks they say are being carried out by CIA, killing “innocent civilians”.
Kareem Khan, a tribesman whose brother and son were killed by what he said was a U.S. drone strike on his house in North Waziristan last year, is seeking compensation from the United States.
“There are two or three attacks almost every day. Innocent people are being killed in these attacks. All of them are innocent,” Khan said.
He said the drone attacks had destroyed not only businesses, but also education in Waziristan because children were scared to go out. People could not sleep at night, fearing they may become the next victim of a missile attack.
Mohammad Faheem, an 18-year-old student of 9th grade in North Waziristan, who lost his left eye in a drone attack in January 23, 2009, had come from his village to protest against the drone attacks.
Faheem said he was sitting with two cousins and some five or six guests outside his guestroom when a missile fired from a drone struck them.
“Three four drones were flying overhead but we did not expect them to attack because we are not terrorists, why should they attack us? But suddenly, while we were having tea and chatting the drones attacked us,” he said.
Seven people, including his cousins, were killed. Faheem was critically injured.
Seventeen-year-old Sadaullah was having tea after breaking his fast in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in October last year when a missile hit his house.
Sadaullah lost both his legs and an eye in the attack.
“One man was injured; my legs were cut off and three people were martyred,” the youngster said.
The report says most civilian victims expressed anger at the warring parties for their losses, and many “placed the blame squarely on the Pakistani and US militaries.”
Almost all victims insisted that the Pakistani or US governments had a responsibility to make amends, “an acknowledgement of the harm suffered and an offer of assistance or compensation.”
While the report noted that the Pakistani government was the only party attempting to make amends directly to civilian war victims, it said more compensation was needed.
“Most victims interviewed were left without amends for their losses due to serious deficiencies in Pakistani compensation mechanisms and no US effort to help those harmed by its combat operations; this, despite US programmes for such victims in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the report said.