Friday, May 01, 2009




The panic buttons pressed by the international community on the relentless advance of the Taliban has finally shaken the Pakistani authorities out of their somnolence. Reports that the US was considering unilateral action against the Taliban bases in places like Dir, Swat and other troubled districts of the Malakand division of NWFP probably added to the urgency of the situation and forced the Pakistan government to at least take some sort of counter measures against the Islamist militia.

The launching of a military operation to clear the Dir and Buner districts of the Taliban is, therefore, clearly an attempt to not only reassure the world that the Pakistani state faces no mortal threat from the Taliban, but also restore the plummeting confidence of the people of Pakistan in the capacity, intention and will of the Pakistan army to take on and defeat the Taliban. Brave statements from the president, prime minister and also the army chief promising to not allow any parallel government to emerge inside Pakistan, and to protect the life and liberty of the citizens, have helped somewhat to stem the tide of despondency sweeping through the country.

Unfortunately, words alone don't win wars. More importantly, if there is no action backing the words, then after a while, no matter how inspiring the words, there will be no takers for them. And until now at least, all that has been on display is tons of verbiage expressing resolve against the scourge of the Taliban, accompanied by half-baked, half-hearted military and political steps to stop the march of the Taliban inside Pakistan. Not surprisingly, the Taliban have gone from strength to strength while the Pakistani state has seen its authority and credibility being whittled down in equal measure.

Even in the case of the latest operation in Dir and Buner, it is still not quite clear what exactly it aims to achieve. Is this operation the start of the long and bloody war that Pakistan will have to fight against its home-grown Islamist militias? Or, is the entire operation is only a move to dispel fears that the Taliban were on the doorstep of Islamabad and could soon be in a position to commandeer Pakistan's nuclear arsenal? If it is the former, then the cautious welcome accorded to the operation within Pakistan and without is in order. But if it is the latter, then this operation will almost certainly be yet another half-measure that will end up strengthening the Taliban and destroying whatever little confidence there remains in the ability of the state to defeat this more serious challenge to its existence?

The media hype surrounding the operation suggests the start of fight to the finish against the Taliban. However, senior members of the provincial government insist that it is only a 'limited operation' aimed at not allowing the Taliban to spread out of Swat to adjoining districts from where they can pose a threat to the Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. If indeed this is the case then this operation is quite useless. One doesn't need to study rocket science to understand the trajectory of the Taliban phenomenon or movement or even ideology. To put it quite simply: the Taliban cannot be contained to one or two areas; they have to be eliminated because it is the nature of this beast to expand the area under its control.

Scepticism over Operation Black Lightening is even otherwise quite natural. After all, there have been plenty of such operations carried out in the past in other parts of the troubled Pashtun belt. All these other operations – in South and North Waziristan, Bajaur, Swat, Khyber agency – either failed or ended in a stalemate after which the Pakistan army would withdraw and cede effective control of the area to the Taliban. There is nothing to suggest that the current operation will produce a different result.

It would be tempting to buy the line being sold by the Pakistan army spokesman that the operation is a resounding success. But when have military spokesmen anywhere in the world ever conceded that an operation has failed or is likely to fail. In the past too, Pakistan army's spin machine would reel out casualty figures of the Taliban running into hundreds. But not once has anyone seen any evidence corroborating the assertions made by the army. If anything, people from the areas in which the military was carrying out its operations would say that most of the casualties were that of civilians and that the Taliban ranks were hardly affected by the military strikes.

It won't be entirely wrong to say that the ham-handed and unprofessional manner in which the Pakistan army has conducted its operations against the Islamists is a cure worse than the disease. Instead of infusing confidence in the people to stay and resist the Islamists, the Pakistan army has created hundreds of thousands of refugees by clearing up entire areas of civilian population and then blasting it out of existence. This has created a huge reservoir of resentment among the displaced people against the Pakistani state. Their misery is compounded by the failure of the state to provide them even with half-decent temporary shelters. The human tragedy and misery that an army operation inflicts on ordinary people naturally leads to an outrage and weakens the resolve of both the people and the politicians to fight the war to its logical conclusion. Very soon there is a clamour to stop the military offensive, something that the army is only too happy to do. The end result: another victory for the Taliban.

More than the refugee problem, the inability of the Pakistani security forces to provide protection and security to people who stand by it is the biggest failure of the Pakistani state. The abandonment of pro-government civilians and vigilantes by the army and paramilitary forces has created a sense of betrayal among the people and added to the strength of the Taliban by snuffing out all resistance to them. Many people say that if the army is going to quit after a while and allow the Taliban to re-enter their areas then it is better not to stand up against them in the first place. It is in any case pointless to first establish area dominance only to move out later and let the insurgents move in.

Clearly, there are lot of problems in the military tactics being adopted against the Islamists. One indication of this comes from the Pakistan army's spokesman who seems to believe that the force differential between the Taliban and the Pakistan army is enough to ensure the defeat of the Taliban. No doubt the Pakistan army has hundreds of aircraft and artillery pieces, thousands of tanks, nearly a million well-trained men in arms. But these are weapons that are used in a conventional conflict not in a sub-conventional conflict like an insurgency. Fighter jets, heavy artillery, helicopter gunships, tanks, APCs, are quite useless in a war against a highly mobile enemy armed with only AK47s, RPGs, light mortars, LMGs and IEDs.

Not only weapons, even the tactics for tackling insurgency are totally different from those used in a conventional war. Insurgencies have to be fought by placing boots on the ground for long lengths of time during which the soldiers have to first clear the area and then hold it and not clear it and then vacate it. The troops also have to carry out mopping up operations by chasing the insurgents and putting them out of business. It is all very well for Pakistan to have a million man army, but what is its use if it is deployed in an area where there is no conflict or if a sizeable number of these men empathise with the enemy within and are reluctant to fight it on the specious logic of the insurgents being their 'own people'.

Perhaps the Pakistan army needs to consult their counterparts in India on how to handle insurgencies. Not only has the Indian army never used fighter aircraft, tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships against insurgents in Kashmir, it has also developed effective counter tactics against terrorists who were trained by the Pakistan army before being sent into Kashmir.

Be that as it may, there is very little reason to believe that the latest military offensive against the Taliban in Dir and Buner will add up to anything at all in the larger war that confronts Pakistan against Islamist insurgents. Without a reorientation of the Pakistan army's strategic outlook and a reworking of its military tactics, the war against the Taliban will never be won. And if Pakistan continues with being uncertain, unclear, unconvincing and unreal in its war against the Islamist insurgency, it won't be long before the Pakistani state is overwhelmed by the Taliban.


    <1470 Words>                    1st May, 2009



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