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In Pakistan, A 'Mistaken' Bombing And An Ineffectual Apology

Militant leader Mangal Bagh has effectively established a fiefdom in Pakistan's Khyber Agency.
Militant leader Mangal Bagh has effectively established a fiefdom in Pakistan's Khyber Agency.
Pakistani army commander General Ashfaq Kayani on April 17 apologized for the deaths of over 60 tribesmen in air strikes in the remote Tirah valley of Khyber Agency a week earlier, according to a statement by Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the press service of Pakistan's military.

Although this is not the first time that security forces, in their bid to eliminate the Taliban, have struck civilians, one can say with authority that it was the first time that a chief of the Pakistani armed forces apologized for something dubbed “mistaken identity” by the NATO forces in Afghanistan.

According to a statement from the victims' families, 63 people died in the April 10 air strikes in the Sra Viala area of the Tirah valley. Earlier, army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas had told the media that all those killed were militants.

Kayani’s apology is no doubt commendable, but it does little to address the loss of an orphaned five-old-year child; elderly parents without their son, the only hope of their old age; or a child who lost a leg, eye, or arm.

The apology also begs the question of why the air strikes were carried out, and against whom. Those in power would quickly say that they wanted to target the militants of Lashkar-e-Islam, led by a bus-conductor-turned-fanatic, Mangal Bagh, and his followers.

This answer leads to another question, more serious and perhaps embarrassing for those spearheading the antimilitant operations: why were the bombardments carried out in the remote Tirah area? Why were Bagh and his men not targeted where they were operating, just 15 kilometers from Peshawar?

In the Bara area of Khyber Agency, Bagh's followers have established a fiefdom; they have imposed new taxes; forced men to grow beards, wear caps, and pray five times a day in mosques; removed radios from cars and other vehicles and pictures from mobile phones in the name of their “anti-obscenity” drive; and confiscated musical instruments and mobile phones or forced people to pay fines for owning them.

People in Bara had and continue to have two options: to abide by the self-proclaimed shariat of Mangal Bagh, or leave the area to save their skin. Trying to maintain a low profile or disassociate from all that is happening is not an option, even for those once considered the most powerful people there.

According to some unconfirmed reports collected from locals, Bagh forced a key political figure from Khyber Agency to pay him 10 million rupees to continue his political campaign. To the surprise of many, no one in Bara can hoist a flag other than the black flag of Lashkar-e-Islam. If that was the case, why were Bagh and his men not targeted in their stronghold, where they were running a parallel government in the style of the Taliban under the nose of the Bara administration less than a year ago?

Rising Anger

Other key questions arise in relation to the reaction to the tragedy. Would the people of Tirah, where family bonds are so tightly interconnected that a death in one household is mourned in the whole village, ever be able to forget the tragedy? Would the tribal people, known for their ferocity, particularly when it comes to revenge, just stay put, or would they react more strongly?

Would the tragedy not provide more volunteers to the ranks of Mangal Bagh or those calling themselves the Taliban? And last, but not least, would the growing anger among the people of Tirah, located close to the porous border with Afghanistan, not be used to the advantage of the anti-Pakistan elements on the other side of the border?

A single and easy answer to all those questions is that the net result would be hatred toward the Pakistani security forces, the government, and the country among the affected people and their relatives, friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

The government has announced compensation of a few hundred thousand rupees for the families of the victims, but again, will the lollipops offered by the government satiate the wretched people who lost their loved ones in the reckless bombardment?

Furthermore, tribal people have to pass through an array of humiliating obstacles before reaching the office of the political agent -- the chief of a tribal agency -- to receive their compensation or get other things done. Such handouts therefore usually increase frustration instead of having a soothing effect. For example, the relatives of a khasadar or local guard who was killed in a suicide attack at the Torkham border crossing in Ramazan last year have yet to receive the full compensation offered.

The apology by the army chief is praiseworthy, but it would be better for the country, the government, and the security forces themselves if this turns out to be the last apology needed in this "war against terror," in which nuclear-armed Pakistan is on the front lines.

Daud Khattak is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.