The Disgruntled Youth of Refugee Camps

by Conor Friedersdorf

In news items about Pakistan, one often hears that efforts to oust Taliban fighters from that country risk destabilizing a government officially friendly to the United States.

Why is that so? Consider some of the arresting details in this dispatch by William Wheeler. It opens with a horrific illustration of why families try to flee their homes when fighting is nearby:

One day this month, Faridun Karimdad, a 36-year-old farm worker, was lying on a cot in a gloomy hospital ward in Mardan, a town in Pakistan's northwest. He inched onto his right side to show me the splatter of dried blood above his left hip. The day before, as Karimdad and his family prepared to flee the village of Khot in the Swat Valley, a mortar exploded outside his home, shattering his hip and killing his son and two daughters.

Many others flee successfully, though that basically means a dismal existence in makeshift refugee camps where disaffected young men brood over the lack of a home or livelihood. Brought together by circumstance into tight quarters, it makes for a volatile mix.

Pakistani leaders are caught between the need to combat militancy inside the country -- proving their resolve to a U.S. administration that has promised not to give Islamabad a "blank check" -- and the risk of a public backlash. The human cost has already been high. Some 1.5 million people have left their homes in recent weeks, bringing the total displaced by fighting to more than two million and overwhelming Pakistani officials with the country's largest internal migration since its partition from India in 1947.
The government seems to have done little to prepare for such a crisis, creating a growing danger of instability from an operation that was supposed to achieve the exact opposite. Although the scale of the crisis may have been hard to predict, the army's lack of planning for the war's humanitarian implications was destined to alienate many of those whom the Pakistani government most needs to convince it can protect.
Rifaat Hussain, a professor of defense and strategic studies at Quaid-i-Azam University, in Islamabad, told me that "90 percent of the army's resources are dedicated fully to making the military operations a success. But even if they are able to defeat the militants in the Swat area, if you have 10,000 or 20,000 disgruntled youth coming out of these refugee camps and then picking up arms or joining hands with those who have been defeated, that can create another nightmare situation for Pakistan." As Hussain put it, the government's inattention to the civilian fallout has left many in Swat without the feeling that "they have a dog in this fight."

One wonders if strategic considerations are ever going to produce armies with humanitarian teams specifically trained to win over crucial populations -- or at least to avoid driving them to the other side. It seems as though every modern armed conflict produces these humanitarian crises that directly amd significantly impact the very objectives the military is attempting to secure.