There are no shortcuts to winning irregular wars, whether we dub them counterterrorism/counter-insurgency operations or low-intensity conflicts. Studies generally predict the worst cycle to last for at least 10 years, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
“The more parties in an insurgency, the more likely it is to have a complex and protracted ending”—i.e., involvement of both state and non-state actors with state actors supporting respective non-state allies for their strategic interests, what can be listed under the rubric raison d’état.
To argue at every turn that we have entered the final phase is to court disaster or disappointment or both. Of this, the best example in Pakistan is Operation Zarb-e Azb. Necessary when launched, it was sold as some kind of final phase. That marketing, as I wrote then, might have induced in us a feel-good factor, but it is now being questioned even for its successes, albeit limited. That’s the problem with creating hype.
Unfortunately, it was sold thus for two reasons: showing the Army up to be the only organization capable of tackling the problem and putting an aura of great generalship on former Army chief Gen. (retd.) Raheel Sharif. Both the Army and Gen. (retd.) Sharif did well up to a point, no doubt. But in raising expectations beyond what the Army or any of its chiefs can do or achieve, given the multiple dimensions of the threat, we now find the achievements undermined and questioned, in some ways even unfairly.
That said, the citizens can’t be faulted entirely. They do not know the technicalities and the intricacies of irregular war. They can’t be expected to. They are looking for quick fixes because they are seeing bodies piling up. They want the threat to disappear. It’s the psychological impact terrorism seeks to achieve.
Brand Raheel Sharif gave them hope. Here was someone who could do it. Only a few questioned the wisdom of this Sharif-has-a-magic-wand approach. The deep irony is that in the wake of the recent terror attacks the social media are again abuzz with Sharif’s posters. There’s no realization, still, that Brand Sharif did not assuage the situation. By raising expectations yesterday it has contributed to the fear psychosis today with this new wave of attacks. Equally, when people start looking for messiahs, they invariably fall for one mirage after another.
In which case, let’s reiterate the fact, again, that we are in this for a long haul. There is no silver bullet. The Army can do this much and no more. The government(s) will continue to work in fits and starts. This is a wicked problem and a wicked problem is one that is either difficult or almost impossible to solve because of contradictory and changing requirements and where information is incomplete. To add to the degree of difficulty, a wicked problem involves complex interdependencies, such that tackling one aspect of the problem can create other problems.
This must be clearly assimilated and understood. This is of course not a call for inaction. It is about realizing how to wed expectations to limited results.
We are now told that the Army struck and destroyed a few hideouts of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar in Afghanistan. Social media, including WhatsApp groups, began hyperventilating about this new development. “This is big,” the administrator of one WhatsApp group declared. Others followed. Problem is, unless we have launched ground attack(s) in the immediate vicinity supported by artillery and mortars, or carried out a heli-borne operation in the middle distance and then extricated, there’s nothing new about engaging targets west of the border.
Here are just a few instances of what we have done in the past: In 2009, after one of our Mi-17 helicopters was shot at with an RPG, we attacked a village across Mattak, Nawagai, in response. The attack wasted the hideouts in the village and we captured the man who had fired the rocket. The helicopter had to crash-land but the crew survived the attack and was recovered. Again, in 2009, to stop ingress from Kunar to Bajaur, we sent a lashkar in Kunar and supported it with artillery and mortars. In 2010, we cleared the area ahead of Bin Shahi and captured 21 people who were trying to cross the border illegally. As part of our kinetic operations in different agencies of FATA, we have carried out several fire raids in Afghan territory. Additionally, for shorter distances, we have often and wherever we could, used snipers to neutralize targets.
Engaging targets in Afghanistan is a slippery slope. But if it has to be done then the foremost requirement is to get the U.S. military on board. While appropriate safeguards can be taken in the absence of such an arrangement, it makes the venture far more unpredictable. Such a strategy will have to have multiple dimensions: aerial bombardment in depth on the basis of actionable intelligence; heli-borne raids in the middle distance; combat air patrols to sanitize air space when it happens; use of attack helicopters; extreme vigilance all along the border to pick up illegal movement; establishing proper eavesdropping through electronic surveillance et cetera.
None of this is easy. Operating in unknown terrain and extrication are very difficult undertakings. There’s a high probability of operations going bad. The best option is drones. But while we now have combat drones, we do not have the capability of operating them beyond the line of sight. And if, technically, we can get the U.S. onboard, the best option would be to get the U.S. to operate its drones against such targets.
But here’s the catch: the U.S. would want its pound of flesh. “The Taliban and Haqqani network are the greatest threats to security in Afghanistan. Their senior leaders remain insulated from pressure and enjoy freedom of action within Pakistan safe havens,” Gen. John Nicholson told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during a Congressional hearing recently.
Gen Nicholson is commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and Army chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa spoke with him the day terrorists hit Sehwan Sharif.
If you want X to do something for you, X would want you to do something in return. That’s where the tactical-theater levels rise to meet the strategic-political levels. There’s also another question: if Gen. Nicholson ‘knows’ the Taliban leaders enjoy freedom of movement in Pakistan, surely he must also know the sanctuaries TTP-turned-Daesh leaders/cadres enjoy in Afghanistan. To put it another way, the obvious should be evident: let TTP enjoy freedom of stay and movement in Afghanistan to raise the cost for Pakistan.
Inevitable game, this. It’s been played throughout history.
The issue then is not just how best we can defend against such attacks. No one can—fully. But whether, given the existing framework, there can be a strategic rethink. That question is not as easy to answer as many in Pakistan think. The Afghan Taliban do not take instructions from Pakistan (the Afghans and the Americans know that). Kabul has failed to control its own territory. The U.S. mission, despite being ‘resolute’, has all but failed. There are other state actors in the region, India being the foremost, who do not want the pot to stop boiling. Kabul needs a whipping boy for its own terrible shortcomings.
So, there’s a context in which policies unfold. And while they try to change the context, they are impacted in equal measure by the context. That’s a point we consistently ignore to our own peril.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider