Attack on UN in Islamabad Will Have Serious Ripple Effects

By Kristele Younes

ISLAMABAD -- The mandate of the UN World Food Program (WFP) is to feed the hungry and the poor. It is an agency which only has one purpose --- to help the needy. That did not protect its staff from the wrath of Pakistani militants, one of whom blew himself up today in the offices of the WFP in Islamabad. The casualties will be far greater than those killed or injured by the blast. This attack will impact the future of the UN in Pakistan. It will also affect millions of Pakistanis who depend on the WFP assistance to survive.

Civilians are the unfortunate victims of all the parties to Pakistan's conflict. In the past year, the struggle that has pitted the Pakistani army --- with the full support of the U.S. --- against Taliban militant groups in the North West Frontier province (NWFP) has killed thousands and displaced several million civilians. Allegations of carpet bombing of villages and of extra-judicial killings of militants by the army have not been investigated by Pakistani authorities, and the international community has remained quiet.

The government of Pakistan has now declared the targeted regions "cleared" of the Taliban, and officials are strongly encouraging civilians to return to areas that the UN and other humanitarian agencies have no means to monitor as they are declared --- ironically, by the army itself --- too insecure for us to go to. Meanwhile, the government has moved to the next phase of its military operation, in the Khyber agency of the NWFP, and is looking at intervening in South Waziristan as well.

Whether one supports the military operation or not, the toll it has taken on civilians is undeniable. The government initially acknowledged and responded to the needs of those who are displaced from their homes, but is now hiding under the guise of the "police operation" it is conducting to deny status and assistance to those who fled the Khyber agency.

A few days ago, my colleague and I visited some of these families in Jalozai camp, near Peshawar. "We fled our village because the shelling was untenable," a mother of eleven told me. "We can not go back until the fighting stops completely." The government official in charge of the camp disagreed. Civilians were not justified to leave that area, he told us, adding that the government is only conducting targeted, surgical strikes. Perhaps. But, as a displaced woman told me, "I am 70 years old, and for the first time in my life, I feel scared. The Taliban did not scare me; the army did."

The U.S. government has thankfully moved away from putting every aspect of its foreign policy within the framework of the infamous "Global War on Terror." But the rhetorical game continues, sometimes through U.S. allies, and nowhere is it more obvious than in Pakistan. The U.S. must distance itself from the government of Pakistan's official line, and clearly voice its commitment to the protection of Pakistani civilians.

As for Taliban militants, they have decided not to bother differentiating between armed forces and UN aid workers. They should remember, however, that they too are bound by international humanitarian law. At the very minimum, this entails refraining from blowing up people whose only crime is to feed the hungry.