The weekend killings of scores of villagers in Sre Vala shows the dark side of the war, where up to 75 innocent Pakistani villagers were mistakenly killed.
War is an ugly phenomenon, and as much as we despise the loss of innocent lives, unintentional civilian casualties do happen. Yet limiting the civilian bystander casualties to the minimum is what will define the success or failure of the operation being waged by the Pakistan Army. The war will be won less with the boots and more with the realization that what Pakistan offers is a far superior alternative to the nihilistic Jihadis that were planning to conquer Pakistan. In the Khyber bombings, 75 innocents died due to a massive intelligence failure. Families and children died when the army that they support, dropped bombs on their own homes. We condemn this utter and senseless loss of innocent lives. Pakistan Army must fully investigate this incident, and take appropriate measures to ensure that the mistake does not happen again. As Daily Dawn editorial below says “Damage control alone cannot suffice”.
Below, we are reproducing the Daily Dawn editorial condemning these killings, as well as the detailed report of the killings published in the New York Times.
Khyber Airstrikes, Daily Dawn Editorial, Published April 13, 2010
Saturday’s bombings in Khyber Agency have shocked the nation and an official apology is in order, not just from the civilian administration but also the armed forces. It is clear from eyewitness accounts that the 60 or so people killed in aerial bombardments in Sra Vela were innocent tribesmen with no links to the militancy wracking the tribal belt.
Even as the military establishment denied that civilians had been killed, it was reported that the victims would receive significant monetary compensation in addition to food supplies. In effect, it has been acknowledged that a huge blunder was made, one that has scarred the lives of dozens of families. The incident reflects poorly on the security apparatus’s intelligence-gathering capacity and has the potential to erode the support the government currently enjoys in its battle against Taliban-inspired militancy. A bomb dropped on the house of a serving army soldier was followed by another even more devastating attack when area residents rushed to the scene. Such actions defy description and an explanation is in order from those who ordered the assault.
It was realised quite some time ago that avoiding ‘collateral damage’ is a key factor when it comes to winning hearts and minds. This cannot be achieved when people who are most directly affected by the savagery of the Taliban also come under unintentional attack from the state. True, US drone strikes have become more precise in recent months, leading to fewer civilian casualties. Also, the military’s decision to confront the militants head-on by putting more boots on the ground has to some extent reduced the collateral damage caused by long-distance artillery assaults. But Saturday’s incident in Khyber Agency shows that dangerous intelligence gaps persist and that these need to be rectified forthwith. Damage control alone cannot suffice.
As we said at the outset, any repeat of the Sra Vela tragedy can undermine the fight against militancy. The heartbreak caused by such attacks strengthens the hands of the Taliban who want public opinion to turn against the state. Considerable gains have been made in recent months with the military going on the offensive and tribesmen raising their own anti-Taliban fighting units. A reversal of fortunes is simply unaffordable. Then there are several ‘conservative’ and outright extremist players in the political arena who have much in common with the Taliban and want to see an end to the military operation. Civilian casualties in the battle arena give them more vitriol with which to embellish claims that this is America’s war, not Pakistan’s. They must be denied the chance to add fuel to the fire
The report in the New York Times about the civilian killings is given below.
Airstrike by Pakistanis against Militants in Border Area Is Reported to Kill Civilians
By Ismail Khan and Sabrina Tavernise
Published in The New York Times on April 13, 2010
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — An airstrike by Pakistan’s military killed as many as 75 civilians in northwestern Pakistan over the weekend, according to a government official and villagers from the area. A military official confirmed some civilian deaths, but said the toll had been far lower.
The military contends that the Saturday bombing, which took place in the remote Tirah Valley area near the border with Afghanistan, was aimed at bunkers and hide-outs that militants had made there. The military has been conducting operations against militants in nearby areas, including the Orakzai tribal region, and many had fled into the valley to take shelter, the military official said.
Villagers, for their part, said they had built the bunkers themselves to defend against militants. A second military official said that the military was expected to issue its own version of the event later.
The death toll is also in dispute. The military official said the number of the dead was “very few,” and added that at least 30 militants had also been killed in the airstrike. But villagers as well as a government official said as many as 75 civilians may have been killed.
If that is true, it would be the worst civilian casualty toll inflicted by the military since 2003, when Pakistan began operations against militants in its western border region. In the early years, public opinion was strongly against the operations, but in the past year it has swung firmly behind military action. The deaths, which were beginning to come to light only on Tuesday, did not seem to be inciting much public outrage beyond the Khyber tribal region, where the valley is situated.
Still, the episode was a particularly bad blunder, as the tribe in the area, the Afridi Kukikhel, had vigorously resisted the militants. A house that was bombed belonged to a Kukikhel tribesman, Hameed Khan, who served in the army, while a brother served in the paramilitary force known as the Frontier Corps.
“We never supported the Taliban,” said Kashmalu Khan Afridi, a man from the village of Sravela, where the strike hit. “We still don’t know why we were bombed.”
Mr. Afridi, who had a broken leg, said that he had lost 11 of his relatives. Women and children were also among the dead. He, along with over a dozen others from his tribe, were being treated on Tuesday at the Hayatabad Medical Complex in Peshawar. He was incredulous about what had happened.
“I know these planes have sophisticated computers,” he said. “They can’t miss their target.”
The military has inflicted heavy casualties on civilians in past years, but recently has been more careful to avoid them. Its operation last year in the Swat Valley in northern Pakistan, for example, was characterized by light civilian casualties, even though the death toll of militants was high.
It was still unclear on Tuesday whether the strike had been a complete miscalculation, or whether, as the military said, militants had been clustered in the area. Late on Tuesday, two military officials continued to insist that militants had taken shelter in bunkers around the village.
But a senior government official speculated that the planes missed their target by at least 600 yards, either because of wrong coordinates, or haze caused by snow in the area.
“It seems likely the result of a faulty intelligence,” said another official, requesting anonymity, as he was not allowed to speak publicly before an official investigation was completed.
In a direct, if belated, acknowledgment of the deaths, the local administration in Khyber said it would pay $100,000 to the victims’ families, and $250 for those who were injured. A local administrator offered regret and condolences while distributing the payments.
Those helping the wounded at the hospital offered accounts that involved two strikes. A plane dropped a bomb on a house, they said, and as villagers rushed to the scene to retrieve the dead and wounded, a plane appeared again 20 minutes later and dropped another bomb.
“It was the second bomb that caused the most devastation,” Mr. Afridi said. Officials and local villagers had earlier put the death toll at 55, but the number later jumped to 75.
Ismail Khan reported from Peshawar, and Sabrina Tavernise from Islamabad. Pir Zubair Shah contributed reporting from Islamabad.