Pakistan army operations against Islamist terrorists and militants, till date, have been in most cases against the Pushtun tribes, the Gujjars and other smaller mountain-based ethnic communities. The major operations it launched in 2009 and that continue till date have been primarily in two centres, the Malakand division of what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP)—formerly the North West Frontier Province—and six of the seven agencies of the FATA.
A former brigadier of the Pakistan army, Javed Hussain, writing an opinion piece in the Dawn newspaper of 22 November 2010, stated: “The harsh reality of a counterinsurgency (COIN) war is that unless it is won within one year, it tends to drag for years.” In the same article, he also wrote, “The strategy and tactics adopted by COIN forces must lead to: 1) gaining and retaining the initiative; 2) continuous depletion of insurgents’ numbers; 3) their transformation from hunters into the hunted; and 4) creation of a sense of insecurity in them.”
“¦as has been shown by the Swat operation, the Pakistan army could not achieve its objective in the one-year time frame”¦
In light of those two sentences, two facts stand out: (1) Pakistan’s anti-insurgency operations have been stop-start exercises, never fully committing the troops needed to complete the jobs; and (2) instead of a possible envelopment of the terrorists, the security forces always allowed chinks to remain in their rear so that the former could flee the area of operation and resettle elsewhere. This is evidenced in the small number of terrorist leaders killed in the attacks.
Both these observations require clarifications. Consider this: The operations in the Malakand division, centred around Swat, had begun in 2007, as Daud Khan Khattak, a Pashtun journalist of the area wrote in April 2010.4 Then came a peace accord, but soon after, military operations resumed in 2008, to be stopped again for yet another peace initiative, with the process finally climaxing in the decisive attack of April 2009.
The Pak Army was trained for plains warfare against surging Indian “¦ It was not used to the mountainous terrains with their myriad caves and crevices, which were ideal hideouts for the terrorists practicing guerrilla tactics.
Peace accords are political efforts at resolving conflicts with the least amount of bloodshed. By their very nature, they are an act of reaching a middle ground where demands of the disaffected are addressed while ensuring that the right to commit violence no longer rests with the nonstate actors. This presupposes an action of disarming the insurgents by the state while the latter begins the process of governance.
In effect, as has been shown by the Swat operation, the Pakistan army could not achieve its objective in the one-year time frame, as Brigadier Hussain advocated. Instead, the army deployed massive firepower in the form of heavy artillery and aerial assets like helicopter gunships and even fixed-wing aircraft to saturate wide swathes of territory with ordnance, resulting in massive collateral damage and the eventual displacement of civilian population.
This resulted in the alienation of the local population, exacerbated by local customs like Pushtunwali, which could be called a code of vendetta undertaken by tribal compatriots against those who killed a fellow tribesman. This created operation problems for curbing the influence of the terrorist rebels and containing them.
Clearly, the Pakistan army was ill-fit to take on these kinds of tasks. The army was trained for plains warfare against surging Indian forces on the agricultural tracts of the Punjab and the sand dunes of Sindh. It was not used to the mountainous terrains with their myriad caves and crevices, which were ideal hideouts for the terrorists practicing guerrilla tactics. While the Pakistan army was negotiating an unknown milieu, the terrorists were on familiar grounds. Indeed, as Khattak has detailed, only a small number of Arabian al-Qaeda operatives were inducted into the battles in Swat and the FATA. So were the numbers of Uzbek fighters small.
While the total number of terrorist fighters has been variously estimated as 4,000–5,000, Pakistani troops have been calculated to be no more than 15,000–20,000. An average force-on-force ratio of 3–4:1 was considered grossly inadequate by counter-insurgency experts as they said the defenders always enjoyed an advantage because of their fortifications and knowledge of the terrain, especially when they engaged in unconventional warfare.
Counterinsurgency operations, in the opinion of many specialists, are effective when the conventional forces imitate the unconventional methods of the guerrillas.
Though the Pakistan army was successful in decapitating the militant organisation of Swat led by a local rebel, Maulana Fazlullah, most of his fighters melted away into the adjoining mountains to fight another day. Fazlullah himself fled too; only a few of his close lieutenants were either killed or captured.
In the FATA, the army and the Frontier Corps together deployed about 150,000 troops. The resistance was fiercer in the agencies of Bajaur in the north and South Waziristan. Operation Sher Dil was launched in September 2008 against an opposing force of about 2,000 terrorist fighters. Though hostilities were declared closed in January 2009, the Pakistan security forces, till February 2010, could not gain control of the strategic town of Damadola. A U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) study titled “Pakistan: Key Current Issues and Developments,” by a South Asia specialist K. Alan Kronstadt, noted that sporadic fighting still continued in the area.
Here, too, the army used helicopter gunships and fighter jets and caused severe displacement of civilian population. Sameer Lalwani, a researcher of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), wrote a net assessment of Pakistan’s counter-insurgency operations, titled “Pakistani Capabilities for a Counterinsurgency Campaign: A Net Assessment,” for the New America Foundation in September 2009. In that, he held: “. . . in 2009, Pakistan employed conventional military methods, although instead of attempting a cordon and search, it tried to clear out the Taliban by calling on residents to flee, leaving behind vast fire zones where it could freely target militants. Of course, this angered the newly minted refugees, many of whom subsequently were recruited by the Taliban instead of supplying intelligence to the Pakistani military.”
“¦push for the terrorists into North Waziristan aided by the Pakistan army could well be a strategy by the countrys decision-makers to postpone the day of reckoning.
Counterinsurgency operations, in the opinion of many specialists, are effective when the conventional forces imitate the unconventional methods of the guerrillas. This includes small unit patrols for intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance, in place of large troop movements. It is best for the networked smaller units to be placed within population centres than for larger troop concentrations to be billeted in fortified cantonments. The idea usually is to gain the confidence of the people to the extent that the latter become force multipliers in planning and preparation of operations.
In South Waziristan, a story made familiar by the previous operations of the Pakistan army was replayed. First, there were attacks by the artillery, gunships and F-16 fighter aircraft sans any ground troop movement. Meanwhile, the militants and terrorists of Baitullah Mehsud fortified themselves in forts like Ladha and prepared for stiff resistance when real combat began.