NGOs worried about "volatile" security situation

Insecurity continues to dominate the concerns of non-governmental organisation (NGO) staff in Pakistan, a country still reeling from last month's assassination of opposition figure Benazir Bhutto.

"Security is a big concern for us," Sana Zafar, programme coordinator for the American Refugee Committee in the capital, Islamabad, told IRIN.

"The situation is still very volatile," she said, citing the start of the holy month of Muharram - often marred by violent clashes between Sunni Muslims and the Shia minority - and parliamentary elections now rescheduled for 18 February.

After the October 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan which left over 75,000 dead, several incidents or outright attacks on NGOs resulted in the suspension of a number of NGO projects or implementation delays.

At least a dozen female educational institutions and seven NGOs were bombed in NWFP in 2007, according to local media reports.

A further rise in extremist elements in the country's tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, increased political unrest in the country, and the death of former Prime Minister Bhutto on 27 December have exacerbated the situation.

"The security situation is not very clear because of the rapidly changing political scenario in Pakistan," Sultan Mahmood, deputy head of programmes for Islamic Relief, which is engaged in southwestern Balochistan Province and parts of quake-affected northern Pakistan, said, adding: "We are observing the situation on a day-to-day basis as it's quite unpredictable."

Attacks on NGOs

CARE International, one of a number of NGOs affected, suffered two separate attacks on two of its compounds in quake-affected Battagram and Allai areas in late July, followed by another attack on its Battagram facility in October.

"Overall, we have been affected very badly," said Zahid Mahmood, programme coordinator for the NGO in Pakistan.

"After October, most of the projects directly implemented by CARE staff were suspended. These have been closed down - we haven't restarted them," Mahmood said. Additional projects were being undertaken by partners on the ground, he said.

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Increased insecurity in NWFP has slowed quake reconstruction efforts

The two incidents also prompted CARE to relocate their offices to the cities of Mansehra and Abbotabad - two areas within NWFP deemed safer to work from, he said.

Pakistan's increased insecurity may have hampered the activities of some NGOs, but it has made others more resolute.

"There are security concerns, but we are managing it," said Qadir Arbab, the security focal point for the International Rescue Committee who also serves as the chairman for the security forum for some 40 international NGOs working in the country.

"Every NGO has its own individual security arrangements. While one NGO may withdraw from a particular area, others may choose to stay... It varies from one NGO to the other," he said.

Coping with insecurity

Michael McGraph, country director for Save the Children US, preferred to describe security as an operational issue.

Working in NWFP, Balochistan and the now troubled tribal areas, careful and routine assessments of the security situation - right down to the sub district level - had allowed them to remain engaged, he explained.

"Security remains a serious source of concern for us, but we continue to carry out our activities and plan for the future," McGraph said.

Earlier fears that donors might be put off by implementation delays had since proven unfounded, he said.

"We're not seeing a problem with donors being reluctant in funding projects in these high-security areas because of less efficiency," McGraph maintained, citing restrictions on the movement of staff.

But in the wake of the Bhutto assassination and a nation still in mourning, huge questions remain as to where Pakistan, a nation facing so many challenges, is heading next.

A gallop survey published in the Pakistani daily The Nation on 13 January revealed that 48 percent of Pakistanis polled held their own government responsible for Bhutto's death, while many more questioned whether next month's elections would ever take place.

"It's not going to happen. You will see," one university law student told IRIN.

Since Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf attempted to oust Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry last March, triggering a wave of mass protests, the country's security situation has gone from bad to worse.

At the same time, a bloody crackdown by security forces at Islamabad's now infamous Red Mosque in July has furthered discontent towards the government, particularly in NWFP where many of the dead hailed from.

Security report warning

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Pakistan’s security situation deteriorated in 2007

According to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) security report for 2007, Bhutto's assassination, coupled with attacks on army personnel, is even bringing into question the ability of the country's security forces to cope.

Some 1,503 attacks and clashes took place in 2007, leaving 3,448 people dead and 5,353 injured, a significant increase on previous years. Additionally, Pakistan faced 60 suicide attacks during 2007, which killed close to 800 and injured more than 1,500 people, the report said.

In July alone, 15 suicide attacks were reported in the NWFP, Islamabad and Punjab, killing 191 and injuring hundreds more, while as many as 12 political clashes took place in 2007, resulting in 64 deaths and 64 injuries.

Left unchecked, Pakistan's current political unrest could well encourage militant activities in the country's tribal areas and NWFP, and fuel nationalist insurgents active in Balochistan and Sindh provinces, the report warned.