By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
On August 2, 2021, one Police constable, identified as Dilawar Khan, was killed when unidentified gunmen opened fire on a Police team guarding polio workers administering vaccinations near the Atal Sharif area of Kalachi Tehsil (revenue unit) in the Dera Ismail Khan District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). The gunmen managed to escape.
On August 1, 2021, unidentified assailants on a motorcycle shot dead a Police officer, belonging to the Frontier Reserve Force, a reserve Police unit under KP Police, while returning home after security duties with polio vaccination workers in the Duadzai area of Peshawar, the provincial capital of KP.
On August 1, 2021, one Policeman, Naib Subedar Raja Tahir, sustained injuries when a Police van on polio duty hit a landmine on the Badar Bridge in Ladha sub-division of South Waziristan District.
At least two Policemen on Polio duty were killed and another was injured, during a five days nationwide polio vaccination campaign between August 2 and 6.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least five Policemen have been killed in such violence since the beginning of the current year, 2021 (data till August 8, 2021).
No health worker has been killed in the current year so far. However, polio immunisation programmes in Pakistan have been reeling under terrorist attacks since long. Since March 2000, when SATP started compiling data on conflicts in Pakistan, at least 119 persons (56 health workers and 63 Policemen) have been killed in such violence. Another 76 persons (53 health workers and 23 policemen) have been injured.
The first violent incident according to the SATP database, was reported on July 20, 2012, when unidentified terrorists shot dead Doctor Ishaq (45), associated with the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Polio Prevention Campaign, at Al-Asif Square in Junejo Town, Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh.
13 persons (all polio workers) were killed in targeted attacks in 2012, 18 (eight polio workers and 10 SFs personnel) in 2013, 39 (12 polio workers and 27 SFs personnel) in 2014, 12 (six polio workers and six SF personnel) in 2015, 13 (five polio workers and eight SFs personnel) in 2016, none in 2017, six (five polio workers and one SF trooper) in 2018, eight (four polio workers and four SF personnel) in 2019, five (three polio workers and two SF personnel) in 2020 and five (all SF personnel) in 2021 (data till August 8, 2021).
Terrorists not only kill and attack health workers and policemen deployed for their security but also spreading negative propaganda against the vaccination campaign, including the canard that the vaccination drops were part of a western plot to sterilise Muslims. Opposition to all forms of inoculation grew after the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reportedly organised a fake vaccination drive by Dr. Shakil Afridi, to track down Al Qaeda’s former chief Osama Bin Laden, who was killed at Abbottabad, KP, by US SEALs in the intervening night of May 1-2, 2011.
The polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan has not only suffered at the hands of terrorists but also due to socio-religious setbacks that resulted from Islamist Fatwas (religious edicts). The first such Fatwa came from cleric Maulvi Ibrahim Chisti in Muzaffargarh District of Punjab on June 12, 2012. Declaring the anti-polio campaign “un-Islamic”, Chisti warned that a jihad (holy war) would be launched against polio vaccination teams.
Following Chisti’s ‘divine formulation’, the then ‘commander of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)’s erstwhile North Waziristan Agency (NWA) ‘chapter’, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, issued a Fatwa on June 18, 2012, denouncing vaccinations as an American ploy to sterilise the Muslim community and banned these in NWA until the CIA stopped its drone strikes in the region. Bahadur’s declaration was a reflection of the consensus reached by the various terrorist outfits that formed the Shura-e-Mujaheddin (Council of Islamic fighters).
Not surprisingly, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where armed Islamist extremists exercise widespread influence, are the only two countries remaining on the World Health Organization’s ‘polio-endemic nations’ 2020 list.
A nationwide polio campaign was started on August 2, 2021, with a target to administer drops to 23 million children across Pakistan. National Coordinator for the Polio programme, Brigadier Shahzad Baig disclosed that 179,000 polio workers would participate in the nationwide campaign and “the drive will be carried out in 67 districts of the country including 22 in Punjab, 18 in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 16 districts in Balochistan.”
On August 3, Prime Minister Imran Khan directed the administration of 22 ‘high-risk Districts’ to take emergency steps for the eradication of the crippling disease. These Districts included three in Punjab (Lahore, Rawalpindi and Faisalabad), eight in Sindh (all the Districts of Karachi division and Qambar), five in KP (Khyber, Bannu, Peshawar, Lakki Marwat and South Waziristan), five in Balochistan (Quetta, Pishin, Qila Abdullah, Zhob, Mastung), and the national capital, Islamabad.
Though no terrorist group has issued any recent threat against the polio vaccination drive, it is to be noted that, on July 31, 2019, TTP had warned people against polio vaccination. The one-page message in Urdu seen by people in Miranshah, the headquarters of North Waziristan District, cautioned the public not to alow administration of polio drops to children or to be ready to ‘face dire consequences’ for their defiance. There were two Polio campaigns immediately after the July threat, in August 2019 and December 2019. A three-day campaign was conducted on August 26-28, 2019, during which no one was killed. However, during the five-day campaign conducted on December 16-20, 2019, two Policemen deployed for the security of polio teams were killed by unidentified assailants in the Maidan area of Lower Dir city (Lower Dir District) of KP on December 18. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, all polio campaigns were suspended in the country thereafter.
Given the past trend, the onslaught against persons engaged in the current anti-polio drive was very much expected. Despite this, terrorists have succeeded in carrying out fatal attacks, targeting people engaged in such drives. This has increased fear both among polio workers as well as the general masses, who were already terrified. The fight against polio eradication will, consequently, last much longer in Pakistan.
*Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management