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Comprehension challenge

July 15, 2013

AS terrorism becomes a major challenge for the new government, so does the comprehension of the phenomenon.

The major strategic orientation for Pakistan has been the global war on terrorism, which many Pakistanis perceive as being forced on the country in the aftermath of 9/11.

Former president Pervez Musharraf is widely seen to have colluded with the US in joining the “war on terror” in an attempt to give legitimacy to his undemocratic regime, by propping it up with American help.

What began as tribal uprisings in Fata soon escalated into full-blown insurgencies in Swat and North and South Waziristan. We saw the rise to notoriety of entities such as the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), now a household name.

Even more worryingly, extremism and radicalisation has been on the rise in Pakistan at an exponential level. These are widely diffused but sufficiently ambiguous in Pakistan inasmuch as they are not identifiable as the enemy per se.

Conservative values are respected in Pakistani society. But a number of reports in the Western media about ‘extremism’ and ‘fundamentalism’, and the perception of the Pakistani public as a monolithic entity when it comes to having a conservative mindset have not helped.

Most Pakistanis continue to live an existence that features a mix of progressiveness, conservatism and traditional religious values. Such a society is not easily understood by the West.

Since the factors which give rise to the ‘spawning’ of militant groups are not properly understood by the Pakistani public and policymakers alike, it is not surprising that they continue to remain ambiguous for the world at large.

The problem is compounded by the fact that even identifiable militant entities in Pakistan have morphed into fluid command and control structures that do not show up on the security radar clearly.

Al Qaeda particularly remains elusive partly because of its propensity to rapidly alter its command and control structures in response to changing circumstances. The difficulty in substantiating linkages is that the organisation has become decentralised in Pakistan by integrating itself into jihadist movements.

Even Osama bin Laden’s death may not reveal much more about the changing structure of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, since it probably exists in a networked structure composed of small ‘cells’ found in jihadist organisations such as the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ), as well as in ‘clusters’ of these cells under the larger Taliban umbrella organisation.

Many militant entities have also transformed into more ambiguously demarcated organisations, such as the LJ which has expanded its ambit of sectarian terrorism significantly over the last few years.

What was previously a hit-and-run entity seems to have become more organised, but one’s not sure on what pattern. Even more confusingly, the TTP, the biggest enemy of the state, is not a monolithic entity but a constantly morphing conglomerate of loosely held ‘militant franchises’.

These could be formed from anything, from a few militants to organised bands of thousands. Thus, even at a superficial level, such fluid structures are difficult for the state to understand.

Whatever the rationale and causes, a state of national security uncertainty is always dangerous, and finding the balance continues to be one of the biggest challenges for national security in this century.

A major problem is that if we are unsure about the intent of our opponent, we will not be adequately prepared to meet the challenges presented by our opponents’ goals, interests, and capabilities.

For instance, if we are able to define a certain quantum of activity as insurgency, we will need to prepare more intensively for a counterinsurgency campaign, and vice versa. This also pertains to the topic of negotiations with the TTP which is now a major policy issue for the government especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

It does not seem that the militants in this country are amenable to talks — the political side of the counterinsurgency (COIN) theory — and have in fact used the negotiating table as a means to interrupt operations under way at the time.

The state initially tried to reason with the militants as a logical enemy, but has not gained any useful advantage. In all operations before the definitive Rah-i-Haq and Rah-i-Nijat, the Pakistani government’s counterinsurgency policy was consistently skewed towards negotiating with one warlord or the other.

Ineffective military operations overly emphasised destroying infrastructure and captured few important militants. They were followed by negotiations, which were then usually succeeded by a ceasefire.

The intermittent ceasefires were violated at whim by the warlords to either strengthen their own positions or violate terms of peace agreements by capturing security personnel and imposing their radical ‘laws’ on the local populace.

At one time or the other, negotiations were attempted with Baitullah Mehsud, Faqir Mohammad, Fazlullah, Sufi Mohammad, and many medium- to top-level militant commanders, with none giving the desired results.

However, by mid-2009, military operations became much more intense, and military doctrines of engaging the enemy head on seemed to have been more successful in terms of displacing militancy from areas such as Swat and even South Waziristan.

Thus, the army operations may continue to evolve but the learning curve is slow. Trend lines now show that the Pakistani military is much more successful in tackling the militants head on. However, the trick will be the political follow-on to the military’s actions in these matters.

Of course, the state may get to learn about these enemies gradually, but the learning curve has been and may continue to be painful till such time ambiguity about the enemy persists. This remains a major challenge.

The writer is a security analyst.