For the past three months, Pakistan’s Army has won praise at home and abroad for its massive operations against Taliban insurgents in the mountains of the country’s north-west, including in the scenic Swat valley. (This is despite the fact that the indiscriminate bombing campaigns have killed far more
civilians than insurgents and dislocated up to 3.5 million people — around 1.5 million of whom have now returned.)
Since 2001, the Army has received over US$10 billion in military aid from the United States, and hundreds of millions more from other governments, to combat the Taliban. However, the Army has long been accused of offering clandestine support to these very same militants, and the recent operation was meant to be a victorious moment for the military as it faced unprecedented international and domestic scrutiny over the issue.
However, the Army’s dirty tactics in the campaign have now been exposed in a 10-minute video that appears to show Pakistan Army soldiers brutally beating four men accused of being Taliban. The men wail and scream as they deny any connection to the Taliban while the beatings continue.
The video is reminiscent of an earlier video which showed a young woman being whipped by members of the Taliban for allegedly eloping. The question now is whether these latest images will damage the Army’s credibility among the shattered frontier communities they claim to be liberating — just as the video of the Taliban helped trigger widespread public disgust at the Islamist insurgents.
Violence of the kind shown in the video is not new to the Pakistan
Army. During the 1971 war with India that led to the creation of
Bangladesh, soldiers were responsible for mass executions of as many as
1.5 million people
in what was then known as East Pakistan. Similar tactics were used,
albeit on a much smaller scale, against indigenous Balochi communities
either involved in the separatist struggle or to dissuade them from
The Army has announced an inquiry into the beatings, while officials have tacitly accepted the video’s authenticity by saying the men shown being beaten were guilty of killing several soldiers. However, given the Army’s power in the country, there is no reason to expect that it will be called to account.
And it is clear that these latest revelations are only the tip of the iceberg. In the past few months, frontier mountain communities have seen a string of brutal reprisal attacks against local Taliban affiliates, their relatives, or those who were forced to cooperate with the insurgents during Taliban rule. Bodies have been found floating down rivers, heaped into mass graves and dumped throughout the valley. Some have even been left to dangle from electricity poles with notes warning of dire consequences for the Taliban and its supporters. Some villagers claim that state security forces have even warned them against giving a Muslim burial to fallen Taliban fighters — in Islam the dead must be buried immediately.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and eyewitnesses blame the Army and state paramilitaries for these mass killings. However, not all of these deaths can be attributed to the Army. Revenge killings or "blood feuds" are an ancient tradition in the ethnic Pashtun tribal areas where the Taliban insurgency has been based. After the end of Taliban rule in regions like Swat, Buner, Dir and Bajaur, for instance, villagers have been swift to target any fighters left behind.
But these attacks are sporadic.
The violence that the Army stands accused of, in comparison, is something on a far larger and more systemic scale, which targets not only the Taliban but the population at large. Reprisals are not new in war, but what makes these latest charges against the Army particularly worrying is that they suggest a return to the brutal habits of the past.
During the Mughal and British Raj eras, favoured local tribal chiefs dispensed collective punishment against those considered too unruly or independent-minded. They instituted a system of draconian punishments that would often see family members beaten or murdered in response to the transgressions of their relatives. In many of the tribal areas, for example, seeking an education was a criminal offence for both men and women.
This old system of oppressive control was institutionalised by the British under the notorious Frontier Crimes Regulation. The state of Pakistan inherited the FCR and, astonishingly, has yet to repeal it. The harsh punishments it contains are one of the key sources of grievance among tribal communities against external political control.
Although the Taliban had more recently started to be seen as a hated interloper because of its harsh treatment of ordinary people, the Army’s use of similar violence means that a vital opportunity to build trust in a volatile but strategically significant corner of the country has been lost.
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