Furthermore, there appears to have been a shift in tactics from quasi-conventional operations, which faltered in the face of overwhelming Pakistani firepower and are particularly vulnerable to air-attack, towards the more traditional types of insurgent attacks, maximizing the use of IEDs and hit-and–run strikes on security posts. This may have seemingly reduced casualties for the security forces, but there is a constant hemorrhaging of personnel, revenue and a diversion of military assets to combat these attacks.
…the population of the FATA is ethnically distinct from the Punjabi dominated Pakistani military, the people of the FATA increasingly saw the influx of Pakistani military might into the area as an attempt at subjugation.
When the Pakistani armed forces embarked upon their military campaign in the FATA in 2004, their actions were widely condemned within the area and suspected to have been done at the behest of the United States. Indeed, if one looked at the nature of military operations undertaken in FATA, they were aimed at Al-Qaeda and Taliban “foreign fighters”.
Starting with the Battle of Wana in March 2004, Pakistani forces sought to wrest control of a series of fortified settlements from a force of several hundred Al-Qaeda fighters.[ix]Rumours abounded that one of the fighters held there was the notorious Ayman-al-Zawahiri and efforts were made to capture or kill a “high-value target”. While this campaign resulted in an indecisive victory for the Pakistani armed forces, the escape of many foreign fighters and the ill-will created laid the foundation for the troubles ahead.
As Pashto speakers, the population of the FATA is ethnically distinct from the Punjabi dominated Pakistani military, the people of the FATA increasingly saw the influx of Pakistani military might into the area as an attempt at subjugation. These areas have long been restive and have resisted control by the Pakistani government in Islamabad. The 2001 replacement of the Frontier Corps with the regular army, ostensibly as a step to fight terrorism and the basing of US Special Operations just 6 km away at Afghanistan’s Shkin military base have created a lot of resentment and encouraged cross-border attacks.[x]
Mention must also be made of the level of force used by the Pakistani military in its operations against militants. These are not surgical counter-terror operations done by Special Forces and infantry. Combined arms operations with artillery, armour, air-mobility and air-strikes have been widely employed with the attendant sense of excessive force being utilized. Combined with a less than harmonious relationship with the local population, the seeds of deep resentment have been sown.
Pakistan’s border areas with Afghanistan expressed considerable solidarity with Afghan militant groups and gave succor and assistance to fleeing Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces.
Though Pakistan’s commitment to the “War on Terror” is questionable at best, there is no doubt that it has provided extensive logistical support to the US and ISAF troops operating in Afghanistan and has lent its territory to facilitate US drone strikes on Taliban targets. The undeniable fact is that whatever the protestations of the Pakistani government the US has conducted drone strikes with virtual impunity, decimating both the Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaderships.
Pakistan’s border areas with Afghanistan expressed considerable solidarity with Afghan militant groups and gave succor and assistance to fleeing Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces. Furthermore, local tribal militant groups allied with these entities to provide a network of armed fighters and support personnel to aid them in their fight against the US and ISAF. However, the influx of trained fighters, weapons and the proliferation of armed groups combined with the lack of effective control of the region by the Pakistani Government, inevitably led to armed resistance to Pakistani military operations in the area and the subsequent campaign by groups such as TTP directed against the Pakistani armed forces.
Mention must also be made of the fact that Pakistan’s logistical support to NATO forces in Afghanistan continued despite a NATO attack which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on 26 November 2011.[xi]
This was perceived as craven capitulation to US interests and diktats. Indeed it would have been inexplicable for almost any other country to continue such cooperation in those circumstances. In fact, the response to the incident by the Pakistani authorities was unusually muted despite some disruption to NATO supply lines. This reinforces the view of the militants that the Pakistani armed forces are acting as agents for or on behalf of US and NATO forces and their agenda in Afghanistan.
The conduct of such military operations by a foreign power further widens the distrust between the militants and the Pakistani establishment, confirming in their minds that attacking the Pakistani armed forces is the only way forward.
In addition to the logistical support extended to NATO, a particularly vicious sore point for the people of the FATA and one which gives support to militant groups operating against the Pakistani armed forces, is the issue of drone strikes against targets in Pakistan. A controversial subject even in the West, in all the US, in an attempt to kill select militants has killed thousands.
In Pakistan, at least 421 drone strikes have taken place killing between 2500 and 4000 people including at between 400 and 965 civilians including approximately 200 children.[xii] Furthermore, one must also be cognizant of the fact that many of the “militant” deaths are debatable and may refer to civilians in the vicinity of militants, thus further enhancing the civilian death toll.
The killing of Pakistani nationals by a foreign power does not find favour with a local population already reeling under the combined pressure of Pakistani military operations, militant groups and virtually stagnant development. The conduct of such military operations by a foreign power further widens the distrust between the militants and the Pakistani establishment, confirming in their minds that attacking the Pakistani armed forces is the only way forward. It has to also be categorically stated that there is no way that drones could operate with such impunity without the active connivance of the Pakistani armed forces.
Pakistan’s armed forces may continue to bleed but there seems to be no realistic danger of any dramatic collapse or change in fortunes.
Another factor which may be at play is the “defensive” element of the terror attacks against the Pakistani armed forces undertaken by the militant groups. Under severe military pressure from a superior force, these asymmetric attacks can keep the Pakistani military off-balance and deliver propaganda value far beyond the physical damage inflicted. This reasoning does open up another possibility – could these anti-Pakistan military jihadi groups attempt to carry out attacks on India in the hope that India’s response would distract the Pakistani military from its campaign against them. Such a scenario is fraught with the potential for misunderstanding and the exacerbation of a bad situation.
It has to be asked, however, what the militant groups hope to achieve. Despite exerting influence if not direct control, over several areas of Pakistan, these militant groups are not any closer to defeating the Pakistani armed forces and government or to achieving any discernable political objective. Pakistan’s armed forces may continue to bleed but there seems to be no realistic danger of any dramatic collapse or change in fortunes. Furthermore, given the enormous disparity of forces, they question arises as to how long can these militant groups keep up a sustained campaign against the Pakistani armed forces and state as it as yet unclear as to how they will obtain the wherewithal to do so.
Notes & References:
[vii]“[Pakistan Primer Pt. 1] The Rise of the Pakistani Taliban“, Global Bearings, 27 October 2011.