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A severe blow

by Mohammad Ali Khan
Pakistan’s struggle with Islamist militants is far from over. Because of a terrorist attack, the UN closed down its offices in the country. Not even the army’s headquarters in Islamabad is safe anymore. [ By Mohammad Ali Khan ]

On 5 October, a suicide bomber walked into the World Food Programme’s heavily fortified offices in Islamabad, exploded a bomb and killed five staffers. That was the fourth attack on the UN community in Pakistan this year.

Before, the head of the refugee agency UNHCR had been kidnapped in Balochistan, held in captivity by insurgents for several months and was only released reportedly after an apparently heavy ransom was paid. In another incident, two employees of UNHCR and children’s relief agency UNICEF respectively were killed in the June suicide bombing at a luxury hotel in Peshawar. Just three days later, another senior official of the UNHCR was shot dead when militants tried to kidnap him in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Peshawar. These crimes show that militants are targeting aid agencies, and that the job of aid workers has become very tough.

This nation of 170 million people is facing a full-fledge insurgency. A suicide attack on the national army headquarters and the seemingly constant news flow of civilian and low-rank casualties were more proof of the problems’ true dimensions in October.

The attack on the WFP office was probably the heaviest blow, however, because the UN subsequently withdrew from the country. Fikret Akcura, the UN resident coordinator for Pakistan, spoke of a temporary decision, taken to re-assess the security arrangements.

Pakistanis are well aware, however, that the Iraq war seriously escalated after the UN withdrew from that country after a similar attack in August 2003. It is obvious, moreover, that Islamist insurgents do not accept the neutrality of aid workers, who risk their lives without political bias for the sake of others.

Let’s hope that the UN decision is indeed temporary. Its immediate impact, in any case, is that all foreign agencies re-evaluating their presence in Pakistan. No doubt, the militants want them to leave. The forces of terror have succeeded in isolating Pakistan a little bit further.

The UN decision of closing down its offices is bad news for rehabilitation and reconstruction in the region of Malakand, moreover. In that area, the security forces had recently defeated the militants. Relief operations were launched in support of 3 million IDPs, of whom 90 % have returned home. The role of the UN bodies - in terms of relief as well as of rehabilitation - was expected to be pivotal. Pakistan’s Human Response Plan assigns 12 UN agencies leading roles in fields such as health, food, shelter, education, protection and logistics.

The sudden closure of the UN offices has made it more difficult to formulate a food distribution plan for the next three months, as an official of the provincial government admits. The WFP, in the past year, protected 4 million poor people from starvation.

Apart from its military, the Pakistani government hardly commands any resources or capacities. It does not have the means to extend humanitarian and rehabilitation assistance to the people affected by conflict. Therefore, the closure of the UN offices will have far-reaching implications for the state’s credibility. There is a risk of the battle for hearts and minds being lost even though Pakistan’s security forces are scoring victories.

For instance, the army’s operations in Malakand and parts of Pakistan’s tribal areas along the border to Afghanistan have indeed hurt the Islamists. Intelligence breakthroughs in recent weeks led to the rounding up of a couple of dozen suspected militants. To a considerable extent, the terrorists’ networks in the conflict-hit regions have been dismantled. Several militant outfits are on the run or in disarray.

Yet, this first ever attack on a UN compound and the subsequent closure of all UN offices is a grim reminder that the fight against militancy is far from over. The government has launched another major offensive in South Waziristan, a tribal region bordering Afghanistan. Once again, the rest of the country will have to accommodate many IDPs – and without the support of aid agencies, that will be even harder.