By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; A06
ISLAMABAD -- The Pakistani army has allegedly committed hundreds of retaliatory killings and other ongoing human rights abuses in the Swat Valley since the end of its successful anti-Taliban offensive there in September, threatening billions of dollars in U.S. military and economic aid to a crucial ally in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said it had documented the extrajudicial execution of as many as 300 alleged Taliban supporters and sympathizers in the area around Mingora, the Swat capital, in interviews with more than 100 Swat families in February and March. A report on the alleged abuses, including torture, home demolitions, illegal detentions and disappearances, is scheduled for release this month.
Based on a continuing pattern, "we can only assume it is part of the counterterrorism effort by the security forces to shoot people in the back of the head," said Ali Dayan Hasan, the organization's senior South Asia analyst.
The Obama administration has been aware of reports of abuse since last summer, U.S. officials in Washington said, even as it has strengthened its relationship with Pakistan. Last month, the administration held a "strategic dialogue" with top Pakistani military and government officials.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Monday that "we take allegations of human rights abuses seriously" and that the U.S. military was "working with the Pakistanis" to address the situation and that progress was being made.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the administration has provided Congress with regular updates on the allegations since last summer as well as on steps taken to address them. "We are mindful of the legislative requirements," the official said.
Most U.S. aid to Pakistan falls under congressional restrictions requiring the administration to certify the country's adherence to human rights laws and norms. Since 2002, the United States has provided $11.6 billion in military aid and $6 billion in development assistance, according to Congressional Research Service figures. The administration has requested an additional $3 billion in combined aid for 2011.
Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas denied allegations of abuse, saying that the military had invited human rights groups to investigate earlier charges during the June-to-September offensive in the former Taliban stronghold. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, he said, issued written directives ordering troops operating in Swat and other regions to respect the rule of law.
"If we are seen as becoming terrorists against the terrorists," Abbas said, "all we have gained will go up in the air." He suggested that reported killings or other abuses were the result of "scores being settled between the people and the Taliban," many of whom remain in the mountains surrounding settled areas in Swat.
The army is holding about 2,500 detainees from counterinsurgency operations in Swat and elsewhere in the north and west, about 1,000 of them in Swat. The military has no judicial arm to prosecute them and has complained that Pakistan's slow-moving civilian judiciary was unable to handle them.
Hasan, of Human Rights Watch, said the military has not released the names of those being held or allowed outside access to them.
Despite the abuse allegations, the army presence appears to have the support of many Swat residents. In Mingora, members of the military could be seen rebuilding roads, schools and libraries, buying computers for women's vocational institutes and providing solar-powered streetlights to villages, in the absence of government reconstruction efforts.
The Swat offensive marked the start of several major Pakistani military operations against strongholds of the Pakistani Taliban, which the Obama administration says is tied to al-Qaeda and to Taliban forces fighting in Afghanistan. About 150,000 Pakistani army troops have been involved in operations in Swat and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghanistan border, including Bajur and South Waziristan.
The administration has urged Pakistan to extend full offensive operations into North Waziristan, Orakzai and Khyber regions of the FATA, which it has described as havens for al-Qaeda leaders and the Taliban-allied insurgent network of Afghan commander Jalaluddin Haqqani.
U.S. officials have also worked to develop close ties with the Pakistani military, which has ruled the country for nearly half of Pakistan's 63-year existence and has an uneasy relationship with the civilian government. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visits Pakistan regularly, as does Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.
Under a $7.5 billion, five-year economic and development aid package signed by President Obama in October, the secretary of state must certify that the military is "not materially and substantially subverting the political or judicial processes of Pakistan" -- a provision that drew sharp protests from the Pakistani military, which charged that it interferes in the country's internal affairs.
Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and national security adviser James L. Jones have met with the army chief, Kiyani, as well as civilian leaders, during recent visits to Pakistan, as has Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who co-sponsored the new developmental aid package. An aide said Kerry had raised the human rights allegations "with senior Pakistani officials" during a trip in February.
Hasan said Human Rights Watch had investigated about a third of the abuse reports the group had received from the Mingora area and found most of them substantiated. "Certainly, some of these people are Taliban supporters and sympathizers," he said of Swat, but many are "caught in the middle."
The group has been unable to verify the military units involved in alleged abuses, as required by U.S. law before a cutoff of aid.