Compromise in Swat: is the Pakistan army up to fighting insurgency?

February 17, 2009

Pakistan’s military has ordered troops to hold fire in the Swat valley following the deal between the provincial government and Taliban militants to enforce Islamic law.

The truce comes after nearly two years of fighting in which the Taliban have extended their control of the alpine region barely 130 km (80 km) northwest of Islamabad, destroyed the police force, established a shadow government and implemented an austere form of Islamic law. 

So the question being asked in the aftermath of the deal is: has the Pakistan army backed off from a debilitating war? Second, and more important from the standpoint of the bigger battles ahead especially in the tribal areas, does it really have the stomach for counter-insurgency operations ?

Jauhar Ismail in a post on All Things Pakistan says in an ideal world he would have hoped that the Pakistan army gained the upper hand in Swat to allow the authorities to negotiate from a position of strength. But that didn’t turn out to be the case, partly because of bad strategy and also because of the nature of guerrilla warfare.

Ultimately, the author argues the Pakistan army was never trained to fight a counter-insurgency. All its training, indeed most of its weapons, are focussed on the threat from India, existential or otherwise. Using helicopter gunships and artillery barrages to pummel your own people into submission is almost a sure-fire way to lose the war.

The Indian army, by contrast, has had greater experience in guerrilla warfare, beginning with the dozens of insurgencies in the northeast, to the Sikh revolt in the Punjab in the 1980s and the Kashmir revolt in 1989. And if the Indian army finds itself still engaged in both Kashmir and the northeast (Punjab was a success, though) after decades of operations, you can imagine what the Pakistanis are up against in such a short time period.

On the Pakistan Defence Forum, a blog focused on the armed forces, there has been considerable debate on the issue of why the Pakistan army has been unable to regain control of Swat. One reader said the whole logic of declaring war on the area was flawed.

His comments are worth reproducing briefly :

“Why couldnt Russia control Afghanistan or America control Viet Nam? There is no military solution to this problem. The solution is political, social and economic. We cannot control that valley because we have lost the confidence of the people. when the people are against you then no army can control a territory.”

“Pakistan has invaded itself, it has made an enemy of the people of those regions and all in the name of a few dollars from the USA and a fear of getting attacked by the American Empire. It is not the fault of the army but those bastards who sent the army into a Pakistani region.”

Strong words those, and as Bill Roggio notes in The Long War Journal, with 142 soldiers and paramilitary soldiers dying since August 2008, the Swat insurgency by that count is more dangerous than the conflicts in Afghanistan or Iraq.

So where does the Pakistan army go from here? Masood Sharif Khan Khattak, a former director general of the Pakistani Intelligence Bureau, says it must be preserved and not forced to fight an endless war on its own territory.

[Photos of Islamist leaders from Swat and Pakistani troops in the area]

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