Counterinsurgency (COIN) is in the news again. More has been written on it in the last four years than in the last four decades. This is encouraging for those who were in denial during the years when western governments regarded COIN as a distraction, of interest only to historians. So, it is no surprise that few have insisted on the rediscovery of classical, ‘proven’ COIN methods. However, today’s insurgencies differ significantly — at the level of policy, strategy, operational art and tactical technique — from those of earlier years. An enormous amount of classical COIN remains relevant. Indeed, counterinsurgency provides the ‘best fit’ framework for strategic problems in the war on terror but much is new in COIN redux, possibly requiring fundamental reappraisals of conventional wisdom.
Traditionally regarded as a secondary activity in military thinking and practice, the notion of COIN has undergone a remarkable renaissance. Intelligence analysis traces the origins of this renaissance to two distinctive schools: a neo-classical school and a global insurgency school. The global insurgency school critiques neo-classical thought and presents itself as a more sophisticated appreciation of current security problems. An examination of the evolution of these two schools of COIN in the current military operation reveals how the interplay between them can ultimately leave us with a clear understanding of the phenomenon of insurgency and the policies and strategies necessary to combat it.
Operation Zarb-e-Azb is actually a campaign against a globalised Islamist militant group. I would describe the term ‘Islamist’ as the extremist, radical form of political Islam practiced by some militant groups, as distinct from ‘Islamic’, which describes the religion of Islam, or ‘Muslim’, which describes those who follow the Islamic religion. Therefore, COIN approaches are more relevant to the present armed conflict than traditional terrorism theory. Indeed, a COIN approach would generate subtle, but substantially different, policy choices in prosecuting the war against the Taliban, its allies and affiliates. Based on the current stage of conflict analysis, I would propose a strategy of ‘disaggregation’ that seeks to dismantle, or break, the links in global jihad. Like containment in the Cold War, disaggregation would provide a unifying strategic concept for the war, a concept that has been somewhat lacking to date.
The Pakistan army has long been frustrated in fighting insurgencies. An almost unbroken string of mostly ill-fated experiences in effectively prosecuting this unique blend of political-military operations can be traced back to nearly a decade from the situation in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) today to early 2001 when the army became heavily engaged in the Swat and South Waziristan operations. Initially, the militant groups started their activities slowly, enhancing militancy in the areas bordering FATA. As militant activities rose, they opened an opportunity for other extremist groups. The army started operations against these terrorists and their activities through many successful operations like Operation Enduring Freedom (2001-02), Operation Al Maizan (2002-06), Operation Zalzala (2008), Operation Sher Dil, Rah-e-Haq and Rah-e-Rast (2007-09) and Operation Rah-e-Nijat (2009-10). The aim of this article is not to rake over old coals or rehash now familiar criticism. Rather, its purpose is to use the present as a prologue in order to understand in COIN terms where we have done well before and what unique challenges Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan presents to the Pakistani government and military. Rising terrorism and military operations have an impact on the socio-economic culture of FATA and Pakistan, and have forced millions of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to take refuge in other parts of Pakistan.
No one believes there can be just a military or political solution to an insurgency. A credible COIN strategy is dynamic but is equally a combination of aggressive offensive operations driven with a humane touch and socio-economic development. Political dialogue to address the core issues of alienation and displacement of the internal population and other political demands must also be conducted with the local leadership simultaneously. The strong tribal culture in FATA, with its powerful ethnic loyalties and its diluted leadership, makes the task of the army and the government more difficult. The need to follow an integrated approach to COIN at the national level is unquestionable.
The management of IDPs, state governance, security and development of post-operation areas must proceed along parallel lines if the root causes of insurgency are to be successfully addressed in the long-term. Results will begin to appear when the army begins to kill senior Taliban commanders and clears militant forces from strategic areas systematically while ensuring that sufficient COIN units are left behind to prevent the militants from taking over the cleared territory again. One tactic that can be adopted is establishing an interlinked grid of company-sized ‘posts’ to dominate given areas, conduct patrolling and strike operations based on hard intelligence and, simultaneously, enable the civil administration to execute development projects and run schools, hospitals, a postal service and banks. The army or paramilitary forces must be physically deployed to boost area security and keep the lifelines open for supplies and reinforcements. All this is definitely more complicated than targeted killing from the air combined with on-ground artillery barrages.
Some might argue that the origins of the military operation in FATA can be traced back to the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. Others might point to Musharraf’s decision to side with the US in the war against terrorism. Some might argue that looting, combined with weapons caches spread throughout the country, helped create a culture of anarchy over which internal security forces never quite regained control because there were too few troops. Others will point to the inability to seal borders and thus prohibit support to insurgents. These were critical events in the slide to civil war, no doubt, but it is arguable that military strategy was compromised before the armed forces launched the military operation for two reasons. First, there were irreconcilable tensions between the government’s grand political strategy and its military plans. Second, a fatal flaw in political grand strategy, which conflated the Taliban with al Qaeda, encouraged Pakistan into an unnecessary war that had no relationship to the very real and present dangers confronting Pakistan’s borders.
The military has gone into Waziristan with a clear understanding of and preparations for COIN. This fact, combined with good post-war planning and the ability to recognise the early development of the insurgency, strengthened the army’s efforts to secure and stabilise the region. Moreover, the army has demonstrated the ability to adapt effectively from the bottom-up at the operational and tactical levels. The successful pacification of the Taliban during Zarb-e-Azb has been due to the coordinated efforts of the military and intelligence forces to physically and psychologically separate the people from the insurgency. Efforts along security, political and development lines along with a robust tribal effort eliminated the armed insurgency and set the basis for victory in the area. However, synchronised delivery of these resources may prove insufficient to defeat the insurgency by itself because of hidden support present in the population, which may align with the insurgents to offer refuge. This process has to begin within the masses to eliminate the terrorists hidden within their own quarters. Putting the ‘surge’ in proper perspective by examining what it is and what it is not, every one, including the media, has to contribute in an ‘after the military operation surge’. The nation has to be the final judge in order to establish a functioning state. In short, this surge has bought time in which it is essential to promote reconciliation among the people of Pakistan.