Civilian Casualties Ignored in Pakistan

In conflicts from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, and Gaza to Georgia, governments, international organizations and NGOs work to assess losses suffered by civilians. That's one of the only ways to ensure they get help. In many conflicts, the casualty statistics are fiercely disputed -- but at least there are numbers to argue over.

In Pakistan, there are no official figures on civilian casualties, and very little is known about how fighting between government forces and Taliban militants and air strikes by U.S. drones harm civilians. Government-imposed restrictions on information and access to conflict-affected areas make assisting victims and estimating civilian casualties very difficult.

Yet all available indications are that civilian casualties in Pakistan are significant. In 2009, it is estimated that over 2,300 civilians were killed in terrorist attacks alone. Counting losses from Pakistani military operations and U.S. drone strikes, civilian casualties in Pakistan likely far exceed those in Afghanistan.

Last week I met with a number of civilian victims from Bajaur Agency now living in Jalozai, a massive refugee camp outside Peshawar in northwest Pakistan.

One young woman, Mahia, was seriously injured when a tank or artillery shell tore through her home in Bajaur and shrapnel struck her head. Her injury has left her paralyzed and unable to speak. Because her family does not have enough money for a wheelchair, they must carry her to the public latrines down the road from their tent.

Sabir, a 14 year-old boy, lost his father last March. Sabir's father broke curfew to search for a way for his family to escape the fighting, but was killed in an attack by Pakistani fighter jets. With his father gone and four siblings to look after, Sabir has a lot on his mind for a 14 year-old. He says he is worried because now it is up to him to support the family.

After only one day, in one small section of the refugee camp, I came across 24 such cases of civilians who had been injured or had lost family members as a result of the fierce fighting that has spread throughout the northwest of the country. This is but a small fraction of the civilian victims, whose losses remain unrecognized, uncounted, and unaddressed. While legitimate security concerns exist, too often the Pakistani government and military use them as an excuse to cut-off access and information. Conflict areas are sealed, preventing humanitarian groups from assisting victims and gathering even the most basic data on casualties. Even access to towns outside the conflict area, such as Dera Ismail Khan, where over 300,000 IDPs live, is strictly limited by authorities. As for drone strikes, the Pakistan and the U.S. could clearly do more to address civilian casualties. The same kind of assets that verified that Baitullah Mehsud was receiving a massage on the roof of his house could be used to assess civilian losses and to channel assistance.

This week, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Quereshi are in Washington for high-level talks with U.S. officials, including Gen. David Petraeus and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Much has been made of Pakistan's "wish list" (which includes military material) and the sacrifices suffered by Pakistan to advance U.S. interests. But many of those sacrifices were made by innocent people who are now left without help.

For the U.S. to properly recognize Pakistan's sacrifices, it must address the cost to Pakistan's civilians. The first step in doing so is pushing Pakistan for greater access for humanitarian organizations, the U.N., NGOs, journalists and human rights observers to conflict-affected areas so that they can monitor, protect, and assist civilians. Innocent victims of the conflict like Mahia and Sabir deserve no less.