Defeating the Taliban in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas
Brian Clougley is a South Asia defence analyst. Reuters is not responsible for the content – the views are the author’s alone.
When the Taliban insurrection in Pakistan began in earnest, in 2004, the Pakistan army did not have enough troops in North West Frontier Province to combat the growing menace. It was not possible for the army and the paramilitary Frontier Corps to conduct operations without considerable reinforcement. In any event, the role of the lightly-armed Frontier Corps has always been more akin to policing than to engaging in conventional military operations. Dealing with inter-tribe skirmishes and cross-border smugglers is very different to combating organised bands of fanatics whose objective is total destruction of the state.
It was therefore decided to redeploy some units and formations from the eastern frontier to the west, but the main problem with the decision, no matter its appropriateness, was that troops facing India along the border and the Line of Control in Kashmir are skilled in conventional warfare tactics but not trained in counter insurgency (COIN). Retraining was essential if there was to be a properly conducted campaign against militants in the west of the country. The process requires much time and energy. (The British, for example, had
to design a training programme lasting up to eight months before units were considered effective to fight the terrorist Irish Republican Army. The US belatedly dealt with a similar problem before deploying units to Iraq, having learned the hard way.)
But there is another important factor in Pakistan’s equation of redeploying troops : the attitude of India.
The Indian government and people reacted strongly to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in September 2008 — quite understandably — and blamed Pakistan for fostering those who carried them out. Many in India considered that Pakistan actually had some formal and official role in assisting the attackers, and most Indians – spurred by an active media – now firmly believe that Pakistan was involved. In this atmosphere it was tempting for politicians, especially those of ultra-nationalist persuasion, to beat war drums and threaten Pakistan
with dire consequences if there were another terrorist outrage – which there is almost certain to be.
Although there was no reinforcement or movement of troops on the Indian side of the border after the Mumbai atrocities, Pakistan could not forget the major deployment, Operation Parakram, that took place in 2002 following a terrorist assault on the Indian Parliament in December 2001. There was no reason to be complacent concerning Indian intentions, given the similarity of the Mumbai and Delhi attacks and the ensuing rhetoric, and Pakistan’s armed forces were required to remain vigilant. There could be no question of lowering guard on the eastern border unless there were assurance from India that it would not engage in military action. This was not given.
Even after the initial outburst of anti-Pakistan bellicosity had died down, there came carefully composed but confrontational statements by major national figures who could not be ignored, and they came in a period of especial concern to Pakistan – the very time at which it was necessary to continue relocating troops from the eastern frontier area in order to combat the menace of terror and insurrection in the west.
On 4 June 2009 the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of India’s South-Western Air Command, Air Marshal KD Singh, declared that “In case of a misadventure by Pakistan in shape of major terrorist attack or the attack like the one we had on the Parliament, attack on our leader, a major city, public or hijacking an aircraft, can obviously lead to a reaction from India, which could be a short intense war.”
Then on 1 November 2009 India’s Home Minister, Mr Chidambaram, was reported as saying “I’ve been warning Pakistan not to play any more games. Let Mumbai be the last such game. If they carry out any more attacks on India, they will not only be defeated, but we will also retaliate with the force of a sledgehammer.”
The threat from Delhi, which many of us observers had considered to have been negligible, given the apparent pragmatism of the government of Dr Manmohan Singh, was spelled out in blunt and menacing terms. Given the prominence of those who warned so clearly of conflict, the prospect of an attack could not and cannot be treated lightly. For this reason many senior military officers in Pakistan argue that withdrawing units from the border could have serious consequences if India decided to engage in a “short, intense conventional war,” as a result of another terrorist attack. If there were strident enough allegations in India that the culprits had been trained in Pakistan, then there could be war. The army, the senior officers felt, would be failing in its duty if it dropped its guard along the frontier; so there had to be compromise, which, in military affairs as in most others, invariably results in a less-than-desirable solution.
The recent operations in the tribal areas, concentrating on South Waziristan, have necessarily been affected by the requirement to balance east and west troop numbers. It is much to the credit of the Pakistan army that it managed to restore peace in Swat and appears to be well on the way to effecting the same in South Waziristan. But the main challenge is to maintain control and prevent the insurgents from again taking over. Concurrently there is the requirement to speedily rebuild the 200 girls’ schools that were destroyed by the fanatics, to implement a civilian-dominated justice system, and engage in large-scale social and economic development. This will take time, and, above all, commitment by skilled professionals whose security must be guaranteed, along with that of the population.
It should not be forgotten that there was no insurrection in the Tribal Areas before the US invasion of Afghanistan. Although the tribes were never pussy cats, and often there had to be firm action taken when they went over the top in inter-tribal squabbles or other mayhem, there was no Taliban control. That ascendancy developed as a result of a flow of vicious fanatics from Afghanistan who were displaced by US and ‘Coalition’ operations. It is absurd to loudly condemn Pakistan for “failing to seal the border,” when there are tens of thousands of US troops along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. If they can’t seal it from their side, with all their hi-tech gadgets, how can anyone expect the Pakistan army to seal the Pakistan side?
The other thing that US experts might consider is keeping quiet. For the White House National Security Adviser to pronounce that Pakistan must now conduct military operations in North Waziristan is not simply bizarre, it is insolent. The Pakistanis have had enough of people telling them what to do. Their military operations are being conducted with professionalism. It would be a good thing if a bit of professionalism and discretion were to be exercised by all the clever Washingtonians who drop into Islamabad to lecture those who are trying to cope with an emergency for which the US is largely to blame.