ISLAMABAD – Islamabad and Washington must publicly track civilian deaths from military operations and drone strikes in Pakistan and compensate the families of those killed, a U.S. advocacy group said in a new report.
The study by the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict warned that unless the Pakistani government and military take action, they risk undermining public support for the war against Taliban and al-Qaida militants.
It also cautioned the U.S. that failure to provide greater transparency about who is targeted and killed in the growing number of drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal belt could drive more people to join the extremists.
"Despite the severity and consequences of these losses, civilian casualties receive too little attention from U.S., Pakistani, and donor-nation policymakers, as well as military officials," said the report, written by Christopher Rogers and released Wednesday.
The group, founded in 2003, urges warring parties to help civilians harmed in armed conflict.
The study did not provide a breakdown of the number of people killed or injured by the Pakistani military and suspected U.S. drone strikes because of a lack of available information. Officials and residents regularly report deaths of civilians, but there is very little independent reporting on the incidents.
Victims interviewed for the report said artillery shelling and mortar fire were the most common causes of harm suffered during Pakistani military operations, although air strikes also caused serious damage.
"At night we were all sleeping, the entire family, when the shelling started," the report quoted a man named Jan Muhammad as saying. "We got out of the house but my daughter and 2 year-old granddaughter were still inside when the shells hit and their bodies were blown to pieces."
Pakistani military officials insisted they take all appropriate precautions to avoid civilian casualties, the report said.
But victims, the media and reports by other private groups suggest that Pakistani operations have targeted militants located in residential areas still populated by civilians, often hitting civilian homes.
The Islamist militants targeted in these operations have also caused widespread suffering. Terrorist attacks killed an estimated 2,300 civilians in Pakistan last year, according to the report.
In comparison, about 2,400 civilians were killed by all forms of conflict-related violence in Afghanistan last year, including some 1,600 by anti-government groups and 600 by pro-government forces, according to the United Nations.
"Civilians are caught between militants and Pakistani forces, while also suffering the consequences of extrajudicial killings, sectarian violence, explosive remnants of war, and U.S. drone strikes," the report said.
Local governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal region — the two areas where military operations against militants have occurred — officially offer compensation of about $3,500 for each civilian death and $1,200 for each serious injury.
But poor management and oversight of the compensation schemes meant that most of the victims interviewed did not receive anything for their losses, the report said. The schemes are also handicapped by the lack of a comprehensive record of civilian casualties at the national level.
The secret nature of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan means Washington has no scheme in place to compensate civilians killed in the attacks, said the study. This policy stands in contrast with the practice of compensating those harmed by U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, it said.
U.S. officials have privately said that civilian casualties from drone strikes are extremely minimal, but the report uncovered more than 30 alleged civilian deaths in only nine cases investigated, all of which took place since January 2009.
"After years of conflict and with billions of military, development, and relief aid now directed towards Pakistan, more can and should be done to specifically address civilian harm," the report said.
Pakistani military officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the report, while the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad refused to comment.