Shifting the 'Complex War' in Pakistan
by Shaun Appleby, Sun May 10, 2009 at 05:08:27 PM EDT
The general perception that our investment in Pakistan has not produced results, that the military/intelligence community there is intransigent and ambivalent to our objectives and that their leadership has consistently been unable to deliver on promises made in exchange for large sums of US taxpayer money is grounded in reality, but it is the reality of decades of wishful thinking and inattention on the part of previous US administrations who were unwilling to press their case or distracted by events elsewhere.
And the notion that the Pakistani Army is unwieldy, suited to the overanticipated conventional war with India but incapable of fighting a 'complex' counterinsurgency conflict is also a 'given' of our current perception and the news from Pakistan is disquieting, as the Pakistani military response to our insistence on taking aggressive action against the Taliban, at first glance, seems a counter-productive humanitarian disaster:
Pakistan's government signed a peace agreement with the Swat Taleban in February, allowing Sharia law there, a move sharply criticised by Washington.
The militants then moved towards the capital, Islamabad, causing further alarm.
Up to 15,000 troops have now been deployed in the Swat valley and neighbouring areas to take on up to 5,000 militants. The military has said it intends to "eliminate" the Taleban fighters.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani on Saturday called the conflict "a guerrilla war".
"This is our own war. This is war for the survival of the country," Reuters news agency quoted him as saying.
The fighting has already displaced some 200,000 people, while a further 300,000 are estimated to be on the move or poised to flee, the UN says.
On Saturday the government said that refugee camps would be set up in Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province, and to the north-east in Naushara.
Flight from Swat as Curfew Lifted BBC 10 May 09
And it's hardly surprising that the Pakistani army seems to be a sledge-hammer where a scalpel is wanted, though they are doing exactly what we promoted and have responded to the insurgent threat with considerable energy, including rotating six brigades from the Indian border to support this operation. But there are also signs that the military can learn the lessons of counterinsurgency, at least in regard to operations by the paramilitary Frontier Corps late last year which may be worth considering, at least in part:
At first, the Pakistani military's response to the Islamists had been disastrous. Caught off guard by their onslaught, the Army had responded with brute force, trying, in the words of one officer, to "out-terrorize the terrorist." Such heavy-handed tactics had alienated locals, even while the intelligence services played a double game, trying to crack down on local Taliban while supporting them in Afghanistan so as to counter Indian influence there.
On arrival, General Khan realized he needed a new approach, one that emphasized holding and building areas after freeing them of Taliban gunmen. He began eating and bunking with his men to improve morale, and seeking the counsel of his officers--not a common practice in the hierarchical Pakistani military--on how best to engage the enemy and attract local support. In August 2008 he launched Operation Shirdil ("lion heart"), similar to the U.S. "surge" strategy in Iraq. Khan encouraged his troops to work with local tribes, shrewdly dividing pro-Taliban from pro-government elements, and, to gain legitimacy, backed tribal militias and sought the acquiescence of local jirgas (tribal councils).
Haider Ali Hussein Mullick - Where Pakistan is Winning Newsweek 2 May 2009
While this may have been an isolated success within the context of traditional military thinking in Pakistan it does suggest that there is at least some field experience of modern 'complex' warfighting to leverage for this and future operations.
And the geopolitical context which informs the powerful military may be shifting subtly as well, as it needs to, from the state-of-play which pertained only recently:
A powerful faction within the Pakistani national security establishment (some elements of the Army, and parts of the intelligence service) persists in sponsoring extremists such as the Afghan Taliban, and tolerating terrorists like AQ and LeT. This long-standing pattern arises from three key motivations: religious radicalism within the younger generation of the officer corps, a desire to maintain extremist actors as a non-conventional counterweight to Indian regional influence, and a fear of abandonment by the international community (as happened in 1989 after the Soviet-Afghan war and, arguably, again in 2002 as our attention was diverted to Iraq).
We must either reduce this motivation (by reforming the military or convincing it that state collapse and extremist takeover, not war with India, is the real threat) or reduce the power of the national-security state to continue its sponsorship and tolerance of extremism, or both.
Dr David Kilcullen - Crunch Time in Afghanistan-Pakistan Small Wars Journal 9 Feb 09
Interesting to note, then, the recent remarks of President Zadari on the scale of threats to Pakistan:
WASHINGTON: Pakistan's president Asif Ali Zardari has said India is not a threat to Pakistan and it is facing danger from the terrorists inside the country.
"Well, I am already on record. I have never considered India a threat," Zardari said in an interview on the PBS news channel's popular show "Newshour With Jim Lehrer" on Saturday.
This is the first time a top Pakistani leader has publicly said that India is not a threat to his country; a fact which Obama Administration has been trying to convince Zardari and the Pakistan Army for quite some time now.
India not a threat: Zardari Times of India 10 May 09
This coupled with the apparent commitment to more than just a public relations exercise in Swat in response to US prodding:
When asked to clarify on the statement made by his Prime Minister that the objective was to "eliminate the militants and terrorists," Zardari said: "That means clearing out the area of the miscreants and bringing life to normalcy. ... If they can, they kill our soldiers and we do the same."
When interviewer, Margaret Warner asked him to clarify what "eliminate" means, Zardari said "eliminate means exactly what it means."
When she asked: "Killing them all". Zardari replied: "That's what it means."
It could be the toughest message coming from Pakistan President against the terrorists so far.
About 3,000 terrorists in Swat Valley would be killed: Zardari Times of India 10 May 09
While regretably heavy-handed if this is yet another empty promise from a Pakistani leader it is indeed a bold one. The outcome in Swat, however, depends on the sober application of a winning strategy along the lines of that which yielded a positive result in Bajaur:
I visited the region in March and spoke off the record to officers involved in Operation Shirdil then and again last week. They say the new strategy has brought Bajaur and the neighboring district of Mohmand back "under the writ of the government," setting up a "counterwave" of government victories that has prevented "the Taliban marching to the capital." In March, several key Taliban warlords surrendered, disbanding their militias and handing over heavy weapons. And some 200,000 internally displaced people have returned home. "Our mantra for too long was, kill one insurgent and produce a hundred, but keep killing hundreds and they will run out," says one officer. "We finally learned the value of killing none and producing a thousand friendly tribesmen that do the killing for you."
Now the Pakistani military is trying to export the Bajaur experiment to other areas. The Army is moving Bajaur veterans into Swat, for example, to some effect: "We're seeing troops that have tasted success. They know what victory should look like," says a senior military officer.
Haider Ali Hussein Mullick - Where Pakistan is Winning Newsweek 2 May 2009
And what of the Taliban? We have heard that they are unlikely to be in the mood for the negotiations which seemed imminent not long ago in Afghanistan, given the perception of 'momentum' going their way recently. According to Dr Kilcullen's Twenty-Eight Articles we may be looking for something different than conventional 'victory' would suggest:
25. Fight the enemy's strategy, not his forces.
At this stage, if things are proceeding well, the insurgents will go over to the offensive. Yes, the offensive--because you have created an situation so dangerous to the insurgents, by threatening to displace them from the environment, that they have to attack you and the population to get back into the game. Thus it is normal, even in the most successful operations, to have spikes of offensive insurgent activity late in the campaign.
Dr. David Kilcullen, Lieutenant Colonel, Australian Army - Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency Iosphere Summer 2006
In light of the counter-intuitive rules of 'complex war' and counterinsurgency the latest pronouncement from the Taliban seems almost welcome:
ISLAMABAD: Angered by Pakistan government's decision to launch an all out war against them, the Taliban has vowed to "eliminate" country's leadership including President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and their close family members.
"We thought that being a member of a religious family, Gilani will support our demand of implementing Sharia in the Malakand division but instead he has announced an all-out war against us, which has angered our commanders as well as fighters," an unnamed Taliban commander told The News daily.
The militant commander, who spoke to the newspaper by phone, said after Gilani declared during an address to the nation on Thursday that the Taliban would be wiped out from the Swat Valley and adjoining areas, the militants had started planning to "eliminate the top leaders of the ruling alliance, including President, Prime Minister and their close family members and aides".
The commander said Gilani's hometown of Multan and tomb of former premier Benazir Bhutto might also be targeted by the militants.
Taliban vow to 'eliminate' Pakistan's top leadership Times of India 9 May 09
Whatever the outcome this seems to be what we wanted, a determined effort on the part of Pakistan, acknowledging that for better or worse the Pakistani military is the only readily available asset which we should make the most of while the opportunity exists. And while some of the more dire predictions in the domestic media this past week were as unlikely as they were unhelpful, we had better hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Sometimes the first hints of victory are as hard to discern as the seeds of defeat.