Military & Aerospace

Pakistan military’s Swat offensive
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Issue Vol 24.3 Jul-Sep 2009 | Date : 03 Oct , 2011

Most people and even some military minds do not appreciate the difference between fighting a conventional war and an unconventional war. The former is against a known enemy with well-defined principles of engagement, but the latter involves an unknown enemy who has the initiative. It is the enemy in unconventional or sub-conventional warfare who sets the parameters of when, where and how to fight. The basic difference is – he acts; you react. In order to conduct a successful campaign against an unknown enemy it is imperative to make him react. Once the enemy is forced into a reactive mode, half the battle is won.

The anti-Taliban operations launched by the Pakistan Army in Swat and surrounding areas suffer from the same shortcomings as was the case of the US in Vietnam and Kampuchea in the 60s and 70s.

To wrest the initiative one does not need guns and helicopters as much as the steeled soldiers to fight the regimented minds of irregular soldiers of terror. Technology might serve as a force multiplier or a bonus to deal with militants, but it can never replace the human mind. The superiority of weapons, technology and facilities is negated by the one single factor ‘Regimented Human Minds’ (RHM) of ‘Irregular Soldiers’ called militants or insurgents. The local support to them because of administrative injustice or emotional wounds due to the military’s alleged high-handedness is a powerful tool for them.

The anti-Taliban operations launched by the Pakistan Army in Swat and surrounding areas suffer from the same shortcomings as was the case of the US in Vietnam and Kampuchea in the 60s and 70s. It wanted to crush the communist uprisings with the sheer weight of numbers and the deadly superiority of their weapon systems. General Moshe Dayan of Israel, after his visit to Vietnam in the late 60s, had forecast the failure of American operations due to their heavy reliance on helicopters, roads and guns. He records this in his autobiography, Moshe Dayan: Story of My Life:

“ – what the Americans had at their disposal was a commander’s dream: helicopters to rush his men to any location; – air and artillery support; equipment, ammunition, and fuel in virtually unlimited supply. Yet with all this they had not routed the Vietcong. – (because) there was one thing they seemed unable to do – land their units quietly, secretly, without detection – ”

Moshe Dayan had raised the key issue of successful combat against terrorism/militancy/insurgency, i.e. the wresting of initiative from the insurgents/militants/terrorists. As long as the initiative is with the other side, counter militancy/counter terrorism/ counter insurgency operations are doomed to fail. He had highlighted the predictability of conventional operations which was the major weakness. Insurgency and militancy/terrorism are unconventional conflicts and they need unorthodox methods to deal. The foremost is to avoid a distinct pattern and be unpredictable, thus gaining initiative vis-a-vis the terrorists/militants and insurgents.

Sub-conventional conflicts do not require sledge hammer tactics. The real concern is about the inability of the security forces to identify the terrorist/militants/insurgents. They do not roam wearing head bands. Therefore, as the enemy is unknown, large scale operations involving heavy weaponry is counter-productive. They create more terrorists/militants than eliminating them. The drone attacks by the US Army in Afghanistan has not only kept the Al-Qaida alive but has given a fresh lease of life to the Taliban. They are more dangerous than the Vietcong. I therefore feel that the US is not making the desired headway because it has not understood the regional peculiarities. Its advisors are more trained in western military philosophies, who are unable to grasp the emotional strength of oriental societies. Their backwardness is their asset and not a weakness because it makes them closed-door societies. It is very difficult to penetrate them. This is why security forces operating amongst them find it extremely difficult to get real time intelligence. Satellites, drones and radars can not replace human intelligence. The US does not seem to have learnt this lesson, so is the case with its protégé, the Pakistan Army.

Eventually, the US Army had to move out of Vietnam and Kampuchea with great disgrace, the causes of which are well recorded in the book Crisis in Command by Paul Savage and Richard Gabriel. The ‘Mai-Lai massacre was the turning point of the failed strategy of conflict with the Vietcong. The US troops did exactly what the Vietcong provoked them to do – that is to antagonize the local populace and thus lose the opportunity to isolate the Vietcong. The USA is making the same mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq, some three and a half decades later. It has not learnt its lessons. The drone attacks will never win the war on terror unless the soldiers live and fight like the Al-Qaida and the Talibans. The Pakistan Army is making the same mistake in Swat. It has not learnt its lessons from its operations in Wazirastan last year.  Lieutenant Colonel David Kilcullen, an Australian counter-insurgency expert and the former advisor of the US military commander in Afghanistan observes:

Once beleaguered, the Pakistan Army launched its operations against its own errand boys, the Taliban, with its full might.

“ – What they (Pak Army) are doing in the Swat valley is a conventional offensive … they need a more sophisticated approach and they need training and assistance, which they are currently refusing. They will move into Swat, they will fight the Taliban, there will be half a million refugees, and there will be immense dislocation. I’m not sure that, looking back on this in six months, we will see any improvement. – ”  Lt Col David Kilcullen , as quoted in the net edition of The Daily Times a Pakistani daily, published from Lahore on May 14, 2009.

Under severe pressure at home and from the US, the Pakistan Army launched its offensive against the rising tide of the Taliban in Swat and surrounding areas on May 06, 2009. And it had to do so within one week of the ‘Nizam-I-Adl’ peace deal inked by the government with TNSM of Sufi Mohammed, whose son-in-law, Maulana Fazaullah, is the head of Swat chapter of TTP – Tehrik-e-Taliban of Pakistan. Undoubtedly, the deal was signed by the Pakistan government at the instance of the Pakistan Army, who had graded them as “Good Taliban”. How come, that within one week, the “Good Taliban” became the enemy to be obliterated? This is a separate matter. But suffice to say that the “Good Taliban” was created by the Pakistan Army in order to fight WOM (War by Other Means) in India.  But the ‘monster’ had other ideas. Its activities in Swat and surrounding areas created not only a large hue and cry in Pakistan but also made people around the globe sit up and take note of this growing menace to world peace, particularly because of the nuclear weapons in Pakistan.

Once beleaguered, the Pakistan Army launched its operations against its own errand boys, the Taliban, with its full might. Some people suspect that it might be a staged affair. Whatever, it is now a war and people have lost homes and lives. It will create deep wounds. War planes have thundered over the Swat sky. Helicopter gunships have pounded the Taliban’s suspected locations which includes some civilian houses. Artillery guns have fired salvos; tanks and Mechanized Infantry Combat Vehicles (MICVs) have charged through the Talibans defenses and 15000 soldiers, may be much more, have been hunting for some 4000 Taliban fighters. Should we not feel relieved that Sufi Mohammed and his men are in disarray? Reportedly more than750 militants had been killed up to May 14, 2009 as against 33 army personnel. This was claimed by an army spokesman as reported in The Dawn (Kiyani Tours Swat as Troops Pound Militant Hideouts) dated May 13, 2009:

“ – The military says up to 15,000 troops are taking on about 4,000 well-armed fighters in Swat, where Islamabad has ordered a battle to ‘eliminate’ militants. Overall, the military says, more than 750 militants and 33 troops have been killed in its operations in Lower Dir, Buner and Swat, although there is no independent confirmation of the figures and no word on civilian casualties. On Wednesday, the army claimed that security forces had gained a foothold in the Peochar valley, the stronghold of Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah, and were targeting militants’ hideouts there. – ”

However, Khwaza Saad Rafiq, a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly from PML-N, had questioned the claims of the Pakistan Army and cast doubts on its competence. The Dawn in its internet edition published from Lahore quoted him:

“ – The army, which had no record of winning any war in the past, including in 1965 and 1971, should have plugged routes of Taliban’s movement towards Shangla and Buner after enforcement of Nizam-i-Adl, he said… the army was misguiding the people with claims about its successes which were not verified by an independent and authoritative body. He said that if military operations in Baluchistan were wrong, how could it become necessary in Malakand?”

Mr. Yusuf  Raza Gilani, the Prime Minister of Pakistan and the President Mr. Zardari promise that the fight will be till the end. General Kiyani, the Chief of Army staff (COAS) declared that the Army would not rest till it eliminates the Taliban. But how long will be the fight? No one knows. Will the army be able to defeat the Talibans? “No,” says S M Naseem, a renowned Pakistani defence analyst, in his article in The Dawn of May 13 2009.  Here is an excerpt from his article – “Can Taliban be defeated?”:

“ – However, the Pakistan Army, having tasted power and pelf for 20 of the last 30 years, has become a bit rusty in the exercise of its professional duties, especially since there is a sense of reliance on atomic weapons against the only enemy it has ever considered as a mortal foe. Its experience in fighting internal insurgency has been minimal. The two territories where it has tried to put down insurgencies, East Pakistan and Balochistan, have resulted in the separation of one and a sense of near-complete alienation in the other.

Its hubris as an elite western-style fighting force – with a built-in polarized hierarchy of the underprivileged soldier (with little education and reliance on faith rather than logic) and an elitist officer class – has not prepared it for facing the quick-footed tactics of the insurgents who have enjoyed local loyalty and hospitality. Indeed, an added danger in the present case is that many of the jawans, along with some of the officers, may still retain latent sympathies for the insurgents.”

Guns, helicopters and war planes can never defeat an insurgency – which sustains itself on deeply regimented human minds (RHM). It needs soldiers going into the strongholds of the region and battling with the minds of militants.

According to information available so far, in the two weeks of military operations some seven lakhs residents of Swat and FATA have become IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). According to the Chief of the UN refugee agency, the figure, as on May 15, 2009, touched 8,34,000 which is quite alarming.  Add to it a figure of another 500,000 which include the people displaced from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) during army operations in 2008, and the IDP population goes upto 1.3 million, who are vulnerable and easy recruits for the call of the religion – the Jihad. There is, therefore, a long way for the Pakistan Army in its fight against its own protégé – the Good Taliban. The UN report on Pak IDPs published in The Dawn on May 15, 2009, records:-

“ – Ariane Rummery, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, said that 835,226 people had now registered since May 2. They join another 500,000 people who fled bouts of fighting in the northwest last year, where extremist Taliban militants have been fighting to gain control and impose their brand of Islamic law. With more than 1.3 million people displaced, Human Rights Watch has warned that Pakistan is facing its biggest movement of people since the partition of India in 1947, which led to the migration of millions.”

Whatever the number of refugees, the fact remains that there will be no return to their homes in the near future. The refugee camps will be the breeding centers of future Talibans. There are fears that the fight might turn into a stalemate because of the Sledge Hammer operations being conducted by the army. The dislocation of the population and the unwanted civilian casualties due to artillery shelling, air raids or helicopter gunships would leave deep scars on the minds of the 1.3 million IDPs. They will not cooperate with the security forces. Unless the local populace joins the fight against the Taliban, there will be no actionable intelligence and no isolation of militants. And till that happens, there will be no home-coming for the troops.

I strongly feel that lack of experience of the Pakistan, Army for such kind of operations is forcing it to ‘crack the nut’ with a Sledge Hammer, i.e. using excessive force to deal with the problem. In the bargain, it is having to taste the real bitterness of its own product. If it had ever calculated this, it would not have been found so grossly out of tune with counter insurgency/militancy operations. It knows how to create militants and terrorists but does not know how to handle them. One is reminded of the statement by the erstwhile Chief of General Staff of Pakistan Army, Lieutenant General Aziz, who in 1999, at the beginning of the Kargil crisis had openly boasted to General Pervez Musharraf, the then COAS of Pakistan Army,: “Their (Kargil intruders) Gichi (neck) is in our hands. We can twist it when we want.” The transcripts were revealed in Indian newspapers on 12/13 June 1999. I wonder, what he would say now. Whose neck is in whose hands?

No expert of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism will approve of this kind of operations. Having served in counter-insurgency and counter terrorism environments for the most part of my army life, some 20 years, I definitely disapprove this American style. This is why the US Army never succeeds – be it in Vietnam or Kampuchea or more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. Guns, helicopters and war planes can never defeat an insurgency – which sustains itself on deeply regimented human minds (RHM). It needs soldiers going into the strongholds of the region and battling with the minds of militants.

According to Che Guevera the biggest vanity of a militant/terrorist/insurgent is : “When he thinks no ends of himself due to his unprecedented successes against the security forces, initially because of the lack of intelligence with them. This state of mind throws him out of his hole and he comes out into the open, thus losing the very advantage of Non-Identification and Initiative. If he does it, security forces would deliver the crippling blow. This must be the aim of all anti-militancy/insurgency operations.”

The ISI will have to soon realize whether it wants Kashmir or save Pakistan. Of what good will be Kashmir, if Pakistan disappears.

One of the cardinal thumb rules of successful tackling of counter terrorism and counter- insurgency : Never be in a hurry to produce results. Be patient. Beat back pressure for immediate results. If you succumb to it, counter-insurgency operations would undoubtedly fail.

The second thumb rule : Diamond cuts diamond. Use terrorist’s tactics and strategy. Plan your operations meticulously as do the terrorists.

The third thumb rule : No weapon can defeat the human mind. All your guns and tanks are useless unless you make efforts to tackle the “regimented human minds” (RHM).  To fight the ‘RHM’ you need to have highly motivated ‘soldiers’.

The fourth thumb rule : Avoid ‘human vanity’ of laurels, publicity and awards. This leads to change of focus and disorientation of ‘protracted operations’.

The fifth thumb rule : You command human beings. Mistakes will occur. Condone them unless they are grave.

The sixth thumb rule : A set of ten Golden Principles as under:

  • Counter-Insurgency/Militancy is more a battle of wits than weapons. Militancy/terrorism springs up due to general frustration of the people with the administration. Therefore, there will be local support and sympathy. Your aim must be to isolate militants/insurgents from local support. Deny them the access to local resources by driving a wedge.
  • Use of Intelligence is more rewarding than warplanes and guns. Half your problems will be resolved if your intelligence system is honed. Do not treat everyone as a terrorist/militant. Lay emphasis on accurate and actionable intelligence. Create ‘moles’ and protect their identity and actions at all costs. Militants don’t move with their headbands. It is very important to identify them.
  • Remember, there are no quick fix solutions. Don’t be in a hurry to wind up militancy; it will bounce back as soon as you have claimed that it is over. Do not play the number game to earn appreciations from your bosses.
  • Carry out target based operations and avoid large scale display of military strength. Define targets accurately in terms of militant leaders and cadres in the area. Assign these time bound targets at the lower levels. Keep shifting priorities and strategies to procure intelligence on the targets. Do not carry out conventional operations. Be unorthodox.
  • Go for the leaders and neutralize them, the rank file will automatically disappear. Leaders are the glue. Disconnect them and remove them, the problem will be minimized.
  • If the campaign is going to be protracted, which is normally the case, a grid of counter-insurgency with definite areas (sectors and sub sectors) of responsibilities must be assigned.
  • Decentralize execution to the lowest level but centralize control. Operations must be conducted at section/platoon and company levels.
  • Total coordination with civil administration must be achieved. Encourage and give credit to police for all operations. The very first signs of militancy/insurgency is the ineffectiveness of civil administration and the parallel authority which is created by the perpetrators of violence. The first act is to make civil administration stand on their feet.
  • The nature of militancy and its intensity will vary from region to region and people to people. Its gravity will be dictated by the physical characteristics of the people along with economic development, type of geography and the climate of the region. It is, therefore, very important for the troops to understand the local culture and customs of the people to get to know its gravity.
  • Media management and denying publicity to insurgents/terrorists which is the oxygen for the survival of insurgency and terrorism. If publicity is denied, terrorism will undoubtedly die. They flourish because media projects them as larger than life images.

I don’t know how the future unfolds and how quickly the Pakistan Army learns its lessons, but I reckon, it has entered a long dark tunnel and if it wants to emerge successful it has to severe its emotional links with the Taliban. It must not be a half-hearted effort. The fight must be to the finish. If the Pakistan Army fails, the country will unravel. India cannot relax on Kashmir, nor can it lower its guard. ISI will continue to pinprick India through its links with Salahudins and his kind. The ISI will have to soon realize whether it wants Kashmir or save Pakistan. Of what good will be Kashmir, if Pakistan disappears.

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