Thursday, 29 May 2014

Death & Discourse

The recent strikes in North Waziristan have prompted some to conclude that the "time for talk is over", and this could indeed be the case if a long standing peace deal with Hafiz Gul Bahadur in NWA is revoked. However, the PMLN government’s penchant for saying one thing and doing nothing means that the confused lull will prevail for a while longer.

What struck me the most is the attention the strikes received and the questions raised, again, over the identity of those killed. Perhaps it is because of government ownership and high profile nature of talks, but strikes in NWA seem to come under the spotlight ever since Nawaz Sharif took power. This has given yours truly renewed hope that some truth about our war on terror might be on its way to a screen/newspaper near you, and that blatant lying about the dead may end in the distant future.

The partisan nature of our media and media men is such that for the truth to ever come out; their interests/agendas must be aligned with it. With 4 separate agendas coming to the fore this time around, we have a tiny window of opportunity.

The first group comprises of earnest supporters of democracy who can be seen cheering on the army to bomb without political approval.  They are pretty much set in their ways, and will not bring about desirable effects. Expect newfound patriotism and alignment with Pak army lover for life crowd.

The second are the mostly right-wing guys. Always uneasy with the ops, it has however been difficult to choose between the mullah and the military. If the NS government falls out with the army, they could spin into action and start pointing out transgressions of the army.

Third - the drone-mongers. An unhealthy obsession with robots killing people, to ultimately save mankind (Hello Hollywood), means they will continue to preach the lesser evil. Pointing out heavy collateral from strikes is imperative.

Finally we have the “can’t deal with being out of power” ANP, PPP types. Hard-core fans of military operations, they are looking to somehow use casualties from bombings as a stick to beat anti-ops people with.
The media, its incompetence and its agendas are one of the most important factors in this war, and certainly the most powerful in shaping public perception. It’s for that reason that the bullshit about 50,000 people killed by TTP persists in our discourse. It persists regardless of what the interior ministry says, regardless of what independent research says, and regardless of how many people you irritate by pointing it out.

To what extent do the intellectulas in media mutilate the facts? Dawn, a newspaper that has emerged as consensus “sane voice” these days owing to media infighting, should serve as a reliable enough barometer.

On the pages of Dawn one among many seasoned, former PPP and current, columnist, professed in February of this year that 40 K innocents had been killed by our enemies in the tribal badlands. By March, that number had climbed to 50 thousand innocents killed. And in April it had come to the attention of said author and paper that at least 55 thousand fatalities had been incurred.

The paper and the author have a strictly anti-talks approach on the matter, and if 15 thousand killed extra over two months reinforces their argument, why not? You could see their desperation, and the number of dead, growing as the talks moved forward.

Fact is, media people couldn’t care less how many lives have been lost, or how. Meanwhile, “reporting” is an alien concept. What happens here is they reach a conclusion among their little cliques, and then invent facts & arrange events to help everyone else reach the same conclusion. After-party sees them tell each other how objective and balanced they are.

This is why the new agendas emerging are an exciting prospect. If they can go to such lengths with their own faeces, imagine what these “news” organizations could do with facts.

The most dangerous lot is the right-wing, pro gov one. Granted they will only go into overdrive if PMLN takes on the army, but the potential is enormous. They are the only group, because conservative and Nawaz, that will touch the heavy “collateral damage” accumulated in the last decade, and the fa├žade of the 50 thousand killed.

The drone-mongers, ANP-PPP dudes are only going to do little teasers. Their “liberal” orientation dictates that collateral damage happens and lying for a good cause is not really lying, so 50 K stays. The best outcome they can achieve is pique the interest of people in collateral damage with their jibes.

Hopefully then some idiots with “journalist” in their bios can look into it. Well, stranger things have happened.

Say for arguments sake that enough idiots start looking into the whole thing. By the law of averages, one of them could reach the logical conclusion that if suicide bombings, the most lethal weapon in our enemy’s arsenal, have claimed 6 thousand lives, it is unlikely that IEDs and hit and runs etc. would have killed another 44 thousand. From there it could follow that perhaps the numbers put out by organizations like PIPS are more credible than the numbers pulled out of their own assess by senior columnists?

And what about collateral damage? Is there any collateral damage at all? Is that picture photoshopped? I bet everyone who’s dead because of our bombardment deserves it. Twitter has become a court where credibility is judged by witty one-liners rather than by facts & patterns.

There’s this report at the Costs of War website that talks about Pakistani civilians killed by Pakistani military operations. The figures it quotes for civilians we have killed are pretty impressive, which it has sourced from PIPS.

Interestingly, the PIPS annual security reports, available for download at its website, do not label these deaths as civilian deaths. They are defined just as deaths in “operational attacks”.
Operational attacks are further defined as “Pre-emptive attacks launched by military and paramilitary troops to purge an area of militants.” Hmm, what could that mean...

A report by CIVIC titled “Civilian Harm & Conflict in Northwest Pakistan” came out in 2010 and it sheds some light onto the purging pre-emptive assaults we have used.

Artillery fire and mortars used by our military, according to those interviewed by CIVIC, “were the most common causes of harm suffered by civilians during military operations”.
The report cites some chilling interviews, from a boy who saw scattered organs of his mother, a man whose grand-daughter was blown to pieces and one who lost 5 members of his family in a single strike.

Military jets and gunships are not very forgiving either. One resident cited in the report recalls, “They were shelling just in the bazaar... it was indiscriminate fire, not discriminating between people and militants...the shrapnel struck me in the leg and the head.”

Another incident cited goes like this “On April 10, 2010, Pakistani jet fighters bombed targets in Sra Vela, a village in Khyber Agency, believing they were hitting a meeting attended by a high-level militant commander.

Instead, they hit the home of a pro-government family with three brothers serving with government forces. A second bomb hit crowds of neighbors as they tried to help those injured in the first strike. At least 60 civilians were killed and 30 injured.”

This, totally guessing, has to create resentment against us. The kid who lost his mother had this to say,

“If my mother was killed by the Taliban, one can expect it from them because they are crooks. But one can’t expect it from a trained army…they are to protect us not to kill us like rats.”

These pre-emptive, purging attacks claimed a staggering 14,148 lives from 2008 to 2012. The PIPS reports break them down as:

3,182 deaths in 2008
6,329 deaths in 2009
2,631 deaths in 2010
1046 deaths in 2011
960 deaths in 2012

It should be noted that these numbers do not include any terrorists engaged and killed by security forces. These are only the people we have bombed to death. The terrorist fatalities in confrontations with security forces, initiated either way, are separate and much lower than fatalities in these purging attacks.

A total of 6198 deaths were reported when terrorists have been engaged by security forces in the same period, according to PIPS, with the breakdown as follows:

655 deaths in 2008
1,163 deaths in 2009
2,007 deaths in 2010
1668 deaths in 2011
705 deaths in 2012

Another hushed up aspect of the war are the rights violations. While Balochistan has made enforced disappearances famous, the practice was probably first used by the Musharraf government against those suspected of supporting the jihadist cause. More importantly it has not stopped since Musharraf’s departure.

Amnesty International’s 2012 report titled Hands of Cruelty speaks of many violations committed by both the Taliban and the army. Ours include deaths in custody, torture and enforced disappearances. The report noted that 2000 cases pertaining to missing persons are registered in the Peshawar High Court, but the actual number could be much higher.

Tough break.

Now we do not hear about all this in the media because it does not fit with the picture they want to paint. The “liberal” voices, usually no fans of the military and usually big fans of human rights, are especially keen to look away because “the Taliban deserve it”. Additionally, and more importantly, highlighting killings, torture and other abuses taking place in military operations weakens their case for use of force, and could raise sympathy for the TTP.

The greater good coming into play again here.

Problem? By rigorously lying about how much damage the enemy has done, and resolutely ignoring any that we are doing, a fabricated identity of the war has been created.

That the national discourse about the war is carried out in the same fictional environment does the rest of us a great disservice. The thousands that have lost loved ones in the theatre of war, and the millions that have been forced to flee it, end up with a very different perception of the war than we do.

Theirs is based on what has happened on the ground; the number of dead, the number of missing, the loss of property is all real to them, not made up to suit one narrative or the other. And they don’t have the luxury of looking away when it isn’t pretty anymore.

War is dirty business, and perhaps we have no choice other than to do what we have been doing. But disregarding half of what's happening will bring us no closer to understanding how to deal with it, and is likely to keep us clogged in this circle of violence.