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Why Violent Attacks on Humanitarian Workers Are on the Rise in Pakistan

January 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jeffrey Brown talks to Washington Post reporter Pamela Constable about how the recent deaths of health workers and teachers in Pakistan have had a chilling effect on the international aid community and what's behind this uptick in violence.

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me now is Pamela Constable, a longtime reporter on Pakistan for The Washington Post. Her latest book is “Playing With Fire: Pakistan at War With Itself.”

Pam, what is known at this point about who is behind this and why these people would be targeted?

PAMELA CONSTABLE, The Washington Post: Well, at this point, I don’t think any group has taken responsibility for this particular attack.

What we have been seeing is a series of attacks against health workers, education workers, particularly women who are going out in these areas, some Karachi, but mostly in the northwest tribal areas, and trying to do what we would call health education social work.

And the groups that have been consistently and I would say defiantly outspoken against these groups are loosely termed as the Taliban, but they are a number of different religious right leaders from that area.

JEFFREY BROWN: Who are seeing, as we heard in that report, a Western plot behind these efforts.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, they see Western plots behind everything.

And it’s particularly sad that they’re seeing Western plots behind very expensive and well-meaning efforts to actually improve the health and well-being of the population. The problem is that sometimes they’re right, as in the case that the film clip mentioned of…

JEFFREY BROWN: Explain that. That was the CIA.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Yes. And during the effort to track bin Laden in Pakistan, there was a doctor who was hired, a Pakistani doctor who was hired to go out and do health vaccination surveys.

I believe it was for hepatitis. I’m not sure. And he turned out to be, in fact, gathering information for American forces looking for Biden Laden. And ,of course, that played very largely into the hands of those who do see a Western plot behind everything.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that aside, I mean, the groups that are doing this, the legitimate work, who are they? I mean, are they mostly local groups? And are they local workers?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: They’re almost all — I would say 99 percent are local workers. The great majority of them are local groups.

But they also get much of their funding, if not most of their funding, from international agencies, the United Nations, USAID. Other foreign countries supply the support.

And I believe, as a result of another terrible attack that occurred in December against polio vaccine workers, that the U.N. has decided to stop its polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan. And it’s truly tragic.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, as you said, many of the workers and the targets, therefore, are women.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Absolutely. And if we go back to the case of Malala Yousafzai that was also mentioned in your clip, that was sort of a particularly heinous crime, although, fortunately, she survived, and many of these women have not.

But these groups, these militant groups, have said very clearly — and again, very defiantly — that we do not think women should be out in public, not entering homes, not doing public service work, not going to school, not going to the office. They don’t want women out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, where is the government in this? Do they have the ability to protect aid workers? Do they have the will to protect them?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: They certainly have the ability.

I don’t really think they have enough will. I think it’s been very difficult, particularly for civilian authorities, to come out as strongly as they might like to against these attacks. They are still very concerned about the growing political power of the religious right in Pakistan, and I think that has kept them in a number of cases from coming out and saying or doing what is right.

JEFFREY BROWN: To the extent that they will just back off altogether.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Yes. I mean, obviously, they have police, they have army, they have people that can go in these places and do a better job of trying to protect individual operations and schools and clinics.

But it takes more than that. It takes leadership from the very top of the both the military and the political establishment to say, this simply is not acceptable.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about at the local level? As we said, hundreds came out, and it appeared in this case that this group, local group, had local support.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Absolutely. I’m sure that’s right.

And I think most of these groups go out. They canvass first. They’re not going to go into enemy territory. They’re going to go and they’re going to use — that’s maybe not the right word, but cooperate with local village elders in each case before they go on their programs.

Their problem is not the local population. Most Pakistanis realize that these are — these are good things that are being done.

JEFFREY BROWN: And can we tell at this point how much the real fear or the reality that these killings are having the impact desired by the perpetrators, that is, the aid work just isn’t — is either stopping or lessening?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Yes, it’s hard to know over the long run.

But, as I mentioned before, I think the U.N. is really pulling back on some of its vaccine campaigns and others. There’s been a number of aid projects that have been shut down or at least temporarily suspended in those parts of Pakistan.

You know, I do think it’s having a chilling effect to a certain extent. And I think it’s going to continue as long as people are intimidated. You know, people are going to stop allowing their relatives from going out and taking that sort of risk.


They’re particularly vulnerable if they’re locals.



All right, Pam Constable, thanks so much.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: You’re very welcome.