Friday, October 09, 2009




    Flush with its 'victory'
against the Taliban in Swat, the Pakistan army is now poised to launch the 'mother of all battles' against the Islamist insurgents in their stronghold in the Waziristan area. To its credit, the Pakistan army has taken its time to prepare for this offensive. If successful, this military operation will deprive the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies the control of a territory and a sanctuary from where they could operate with impunity and launch terror strikes in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, if the Pakistan army is unable to wrest control of this area, or if it suffers major reverses and has to stop its ground offensive for any reason, then there is a danger it might result in a domino effect that could severely weaken the Pakistani state.

No doubt, the success of the operation in Swat and Malakand would have certainly raised the morale and confidence of the troops and lent a momentum to future military campaigns against the Taliban. It would however be wise to keep a perspective on what has been achieved so far and not go overboard in lauding the performance of the army. The reality of the Swat operation is that the Pakistan army has only wrested physical control of the area from the Taliban. Psychologically, the Taliban continue to instil dread in the minds of the people of the area. Although the Taliban no longer have a run of the place, and notwithstanding the recent successes of the army in arresting and eliminating some of the high-profile Taliban commanders, the bulk of the Taliban cadre has not only eluded the dragnet of the security forces, but are also able to frequently mount guerrilla attacks against both civilian and military targets.

What the Pakistan army has so far fought and won was largely a conventional conflict and that too against an enemy who was heavily outgunned. While the Pakistan army was equipped with tanks, fighter jets, heavy artillery and gunship helicopters, its adversary, even though well-entrenched in certain places where fierce fighting took place, was using no more than assault rifles, mortars, grenades and IEDs. Given the superiority it enjoyed, the Pakistan army was always going to win a set-piece battle against the highly mobile light infantry of the Taliban who would have found it impossible to stand an onslaught by a regular army using all the firepower at its command. This was the easy part, and in the case of Swat this was made even easier by the tactic of clearing out the civilian population from the entire area and then using overwhelming force against a lightly armed insurgent group without having to worry too much about civilian casualties.

The more difficult part is going to be keeping the peace and restoring a sense of security in the people by ensuring law and order and a terror free atmosphere. This next phase of the operation is even more critical than the physical ouster of the Taliban from the towns and villages they controlled in Swat. In this new phase conventional tactics are unlikely to work and will have to be replaced by counter-insurgency tactics, which in turn could embroil the Pakistan army in a long and 'dirty' war of attrition. The problems for the Pakistan army will increase as it regains control of other areas which are currently under the sway of the Taliban. As the army clears out newer areas, the theatre of operation will expand and with it the requirement of troops needed to first hold and then sanitise these areas of the Taliban.

Perhaps this is the reason why the Pakistan army has adopted measures that it believes will help in preventing a return of the Taliban. One of these measures is the setting of state-supported vigilante groups – Lashkars – that not only defend the 'liberated' areas but also assist the army in hunting down the Taliban cadre. The Lashkars also serve as a convenient alibi for the army to explain the hundreds of bodies of alleged Taliban cadre or supporters that are being discovered everyday in Swat and Malakand.

Reports in the Pakistani media suggest that most of these people have been victims of brutal extra-judicial killings by the security forces. There are stories of mass graves being discovered, of how the army has hurled arrested Taliban out of choppers over the areas still dominated by the Islamists, or how mutilated bodies of suspected Taliban have been found hanging from lamp-posts. It is believed that the army is not only trying to make an example of the Taliban, but also getting its own back at them for the mutilation of bodies of soldiers who were captured by the Taliban. For its part, the army denies any wrong-doing by its troops and conveniently blames these murders on local people who they say are exacting revenge from the Taliban.

Whatever the truth behind the mass murder taking place in Swat and Malakand, the efficacy of the tactics being adopted in ending the Islamist insurgency are quite uncertain. The summary executions of suspected Taliban are, for the moment at least, being welcomed by the victims of Taliban and adding to the support for the army. But while the army has successfully managed to establish a balance of terror with the Taliban, this could easily boomerang. Many innocent people will inevitably become victims if the mass killings continue. Not only will this fuel resentment against the army, it could easily lead to greater support for the Taliban. What is more, the execution of suspected Taliban will effectively close the door to any surrender or laying down of arms by the Islamists, thereby prolonging the conflict.

More importantly, the use of vigilantes could easily usher in an anarchic situation and make the task of restoring law and order next to impossible. One the one hand, there are serious questions about their effectiveness in resisting the Taliban once the army withdraws. On the other hand, if they remain effective, they could become a state within a state, something that will make a mockery of the objective of restoring the writ of the state in these areas.

The security dimension - area domination and control by the army – is only a necessary condition for restoring the lost writ of the Pakistani state in places which had for all practical purposes become Islamic emirates run by Islamist warlords. It is just as important to undertake the political, administrative and ideological measures necessary to isolate Taliban. Until now all these three aspects are missing from the strategy of the Pakistani state. For now, the people's antipathy for the Taliban has probably obviated the need to put in place the ideological, political and administrative effort needed to ensure that the Taliban can never comeback. But this situation could change very easily. If law and order remains disturbed, judicial system remains inefficient, administrative delivery stays dysfunctional and the local economy doesn't recover, the people's sympathy could once again shift in favour of the Taliban.

Therefore, before they tom-tom their success in Swat and compare it with the imminent failure of the US mission in Afghanistan, the Pakistanis will do well to keep in mind the experience of Americans in Afghanistan. When the Americans launched their offensive against the Taliban in 2001, they had everything going for them – overwhelming superiority, support of anti-Taliban forces and almost the entire international community, the contempt that ordinary Afghans felt for the Taliban and most importantly, promise of a better life that they held for Afghans. It took the Americans just one month to capture Kabul. Within a couple of weeks the Taliban were ousted from everywhere in Afghanistan.

Like the Pakistan army in Swat, the Americans enjoyed a lot of goodwill. It was expected that the international community would rebuild Afghanistan and usher in an era of development and stability in that country. The revulsion that they caused left the Taliban practically friendless. Local communities and warlords collaborated with the foreign forces and helped in hunting down the Taliban and settling their scores with them. At that time no one imagined that the Taliban would ever make a comeback.

But eight years later the tables have turned and the Taliban are once again on the verge to occupying Afghanistan. Partly because of their military tactics and partly because of their dismal development record, the Americans have lost whatever goodwill they enjoyed. The Taliban, on the other hand, have reorganised themselves and once again become a force to reckon with, something that they could have never managed without the support of local people. The renewed support for the Taliban is partly a function of the disaffection with the Americans, partly a result of the inability of the ISAF troops to provide security to local communities, partly a reaction to the failure of the international community to make any meaningful difference in the lives of ordinary Afghans, partly as a result of the coercion by the Islamists, partly because of continuing support and sustenance that the Taliban receive from official and non-official sources in Pakistan and last but not the least, because of the natural proclivity of the people to support they side they think will win the war, a conclusion that many Afghans have reached because of the defeatist mindset of the Western forces.

    Clearly, if the Pakistanis are to avoid a fate similar to that being suffered by the Americans in Afghanistan, they need to get their political, administrative and ideological act together and present the Pakistani state as a preferable and desirable alternative to anything that the Taliban might offer. The Pakistanis enjoy many of the advantages that were never available to the ISAF in Afghanistan. But these advantages could easily disappear if there is confusion over identifying the enemy – the distinction between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban or the distinction between the 'Baitullah network' of Pakistani Taliban and other Pakistani Taliban groups (drawn out by none other than the Pakistan army's spokesman in a TV interview).


    <1675 Words>                    9th October, 2009



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