On Tuesday, news agencies reported that up to 71 civilians were killed in a weekend air strike by Pakistani jets in the Khyber tribal agency. However, the Pakistani military has yet to confirm the deaths as civilian casualties, and military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas emphasized that the army “had intelligence that militants were gathering at the site of the strike.”
On Tuesday though, the story was confirmed by an anonymous government official, who said authorities “had already handed out the equivalent of $125,000 in compensation to families of the victims,” a development further backed by The Guardian, which cited residents who had received the money.
News agencies interviewed two survivors of the air strike today, who were in a hospital in Peshawar, and stated that most people were killed “when they were trying to rescue people trapped by an earlier strike on the house of a village elder.” One survivor, identified as Khanan Gul Khan, told the Associated Press, “This house was bombed on absolutely wrong information. This area has nothing to do with militants.” Khan’s statement echoed Ikramullah Jan Kukikhel, a tribal elder who spoke to The Guardian by phone, noting, “The Kukikhel [tribe] are with the government. We have never joined the Taliban or any other fundamentalist group. We are normal people who just want peace for the country.”
Reading this horrific news today, a few points struck me. First, 71 people are not just a statistic of this war, the unavoidable collateral of conflict. If the news coverage is accurate, this was avoidable. The fact that it occurred doesn’t just reflect “poorly on the security apparatus’ intelligence-gathering capacity,” as Dawn’s editorial suggested. It also is a testament to how little we know about this war, (see Huma Imtiaz’s fantastic related piece) and how counterinsurgency is more than a trendy term to throw around. Yes, “the battle for hearts and minds” has become a cliched and overused term, but the Pakistani military must understand that denying air strikes and civilian casualties may blindfold the larger public, but it undermines their campaign with the people directly impacted by their actions.
At the end of the day, the local residents in the military’s area of operations are the ones who must be ensured safety and protection. Giving the victims’ families compensation, or “blood money,” does little more than bandage a wound. It cheapens the gravity of a tragedy. And it is certainly not enough.