The Battle Within Pakistan

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The February 16 bombing in Quetta targeting the Hazara community was the latest in a long, sad, and intensifying series of incidents of sectarian violence. Death tolls within Pakistan were greater in 2012 than the year before and are rising steeply.

According to publicly available figures based on press reporting, civilian casualties in Pakistan rose to 3,007 in the past year, an increase of roughly 300 fatalities from 2011. The first two months of 2013 have been especially bad. If internal or domestic violence continues along this trajectory, non-combatant deaths will more than double in the coming year.

Based on data derived from media reports, violence inside Pakistan ranks worse than Afghanistan and India. Leaving aside states experiencing the carnage of civil wars, like Syria, only one country – Iraq – is afflicted with more sectarian violence and suffers more fatalities than Pakistan.

Pakistan’s unenviable ranking confirms the judgment of the chief of army staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who told cadets at the Pakistan Military Academy in August 2012 that “Today, extremism and terrorism present a grave challenge… We as a nation must stand united against this threat … the challenge that threatens us the most is preservation of national integrity and unity”.

Pakistan’s high casualty counts have multiple drivers, making them very difficult to reverse. In 2012, Sindh, especially Karachi, accounted for the largest number of fatalities – 44 per cent, or 1,318 deaths. Balochistan represented 23 per cent of the total, with 690 fatalities.

The Federally Administered Tribal Territories, often viewed externally as the crux of violence within Pakistan, experienced 549 civilian fatalities – 18 per cent of Pakistan’s total civilian deaths from internal violence last year. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa suffered 363 civilian deaths, or 12 per cent of the total.

Another source of civilian fatalities within Pakistan is US drone strikes. The database compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management records 344 deaths due to drone strikes in 2012. This database does not distinguish between non-combatant and militant deaths – a problem common to all outside observers.

US government officials assert that the number of non-combatant deaths from drone strikes is extremely low. Even if, for the purposes of debate, we considered every single fatality from drone strikes to be non-combatants – a far-fetched assumption – and added them to Pakistan’s total, only one out of every 11 domestic fatalities could be attributed to drones.

This broad distribution of violent deaths, stemming from very different causes within Pakistan, reflects how hard it will be for political leaders, military and internal security forces to turn back this deadly tide. While US drone strikes are deeply problematic, they are far from the root cause of Pakistan’s internal violence: two out of every three non-combatant Pakistani deaths in 2012 occurred in Sindh and Balochistan.

The veils covering the guidelines for US drone strikes are only now beginning to be peeled away. This issue will continue to be debated in the United States and between Washington and Islamabad. In the meantime, even if this highly contentious issue were swept away, and even if US drone attacks were to cease tomorrow, Pakistan would still place second behind Iraq in global rankings of states victimised by internal violence that are not in the throes of a civil war.

Domestic fatalities continue unabated in 2013. In fact, death tolls have markedly increased. Since New Year’s Day, over 620 Pakistani civilians have died – an average of almost 13 per day. More civilians lost their lives to domestic violence in January 2013 than in January 2011 and 2012 combined. If current death rates continue, 7,036 Pakistanis will die from violent domestic causes this year – over twice that of last year.

A February 2 editorial in Dawn surmised that, “It seems that the state does not have the intention or motivation to lift the lid off Karachi’s boiling cauldron of violence and identify the problems.” Available data suggest that this conclusion applies far more broadly, covering very wide swaths of Pakistani territory.

Gen Kayani has spoken more forthrightly of this national security challenge than Pakistan’s political leaders who have, for the most part, expressed ritualistic concerns about domestic violence without taking concerted action. The call for a domestic consensus in dealing with this carnage is understandable, especially during an election season. But if politics were consensual in Pakistan, there would be no need for corrective action.

The Supreme Court accuses the federal government of failing to address the worsening law and order situation in Karachi, while the deputy attorney general, a federal official, argues that responsibility for improving Karachi’s security situation rests not with federal authorities, but with the provincial government.

With politics stuck in pre-election pirouettes, death tolls rise. Absent a consensus among national leaders, or hard political choices, internal violence is killing Pakistan from within.

A version of this piece, by Michael Krepon and Julia Thompson, appeared as an op-ed in Dawn on February 21, 2013.


Photo Credit: ABC Open Riverland via Flickr


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