Insurgency in Pakistan: what next?

October 16, 2009

After last weekend’s attack on the headquarters of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi, one of the questions being asked with a rather troubling air of inevitability was: where next? That question was answered on Thursday with a string of attacks across the country, including three in Lahore.

So now, what next?

Many expect the attacks to continue, as militants based in the country’s heartland Punjab province unleash a wave of violence ahead of a planned military offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in their stronghold in South Waziristan.  Few are prepared to predict either how much worse they could get, nor exactly how Pakistan will respond.

The blogger “Londonstani” at Abu Muqawama writes that, “the media, foreign and domestic, seems to be split between two narratives: ‘Militants are getting stronger and we are stuffed’ or ‘This is the last gasp of militants who are about to be ground to pulp by the army’”.

He argues however that “the downfall of militancy of this kind is built into its success. It can only really thrive when it is seen as a by-product of unpopular government policies, foreign occupation etc. But when the militancy gets powerful enough to pull off spectaculars like the operations today in Lahore, that’s when the local population see it as a threat in its own right. When it starts looking like a realistic possibility (even if pretty distant) that Taliban types might soon be telling you how to live, ambivalence towards their activities falls away.”

But in a column in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, Nadeem Paracha writes that it may yet take a while for Pakistanis to drop their ambivalence. 

“What is it that makes these terrorists so sure and confident about themselves? It’s simple. We do!” it says.

“It is the sheer hesitancy that we show towards fully realizing the grave dangers these terrorists hold,  and a weird, inexplicable sense and understanding of reality that most Pakistanis look to be suffering from, that gives these terrorists the psychological edge and opening; providing them as convoluted a justification to commit acts of barbarism in the fine name of God, as is our own habit of ending up actually recognizing their many deeds as being either a sympathetic socio-political outcome, or, of course, a wild conspiracy by our many (largely imagined) enemies lingering on our borders.”

No one is suggesting that Pakistan is about to be overrun by Islamist militants. But what is clear is that there has been a step-shift in the nature of the insurgency in Pakistan. This is more than mere geography, as the violence spreads increasingly from the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan into the heartland of the country. It is more even than the rising frequency of attacks. What is perhaps most worrisome is that there appears to be a coherence to the attacks that has not yet been fully understood.

Does the apparent mayhem mask a clear strategy on the part of the militants which goes beyond targetting security forces wherever they can as a pre-emptive strike against the planned offensive in South Waziristan?  Which militant organisations are involved among the Punjab-based groups and the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-e-Taliban? And how does the attempt to destabilise Pakistan fit with the situation in Afghanistan?

Britain’s Guardian newspaper says in an editorial the implications of the attacks over the last week or so are profound.

“Militant attacks of this sophistication and scale represent more than just a pre-emptive strike against a long-heralded army offensive in South Waziristan …  A new front has been opened. It is a battle that the army cannot afford to lose, because it is being fought in the Punjab itself, the very heart of the Pakistani state.”

Security analysts argue that historically insurgencies have failed far more often than they have succeeded, although there might be months, or years, of  “irregular warfare” (in the case of Pakistan this has meant suicide bombings and fedayeen attacks).

If you wanted to apply that framework to what is happening right now in Pakistan, you would need to understand both the nature of the state and the nature of the insurgents. Much has been written about the state in Pakistan. But how much do we really know about the insurgents? Until we work that out, it seems unlikely that anyone can answer with any confidence the question of what next.

(Reuters photos: soldiers and police in Lahore)

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