Our counterinsurgency doctrine

December 04, 2016

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RETIRED Gen Raheel Sharif’s major contribution to achieving peace and security in the country was the launch of the military operation Zarb-i-Azb in North Waziristan. Although long overdue, previous military and civilian leaders had refrained from striking the militants’ hive in the restive agency on the pretext of what they perceived as negative internal and external implications. The then army chief put aside these apprehensions and made a decision for which he will be remembered as a man of action, notwithstanding some persisting concerns about the long-term impact and sustainability of the operation.

Zarb-i-Azb is not only a success story in the war against terrorism, it also defines the development of Pakistan’s counterinsurgency framework. The retired army chief was undoubtedly one of the architects of this framework. The unfinished operation will be an important task for the new army chief to take the lead on.

The Taliban insurgency in Fata had multiple dimensions, ranging from tribal to religious, and local to regional and global. Pakistan’s counterinsurgency campaign took about 13 years to evolve as it continuously consumed the intellectual and strategic energies of the security establishment. The former army chief’s predecessor, retired Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, contributed significantly to Pakistan’s emerging counterinsurgency doctrine. Through his intellectual efforts and extensive field exercises, he reassessed the internal security threats and declared terrorism to be an existential threat to Pakistan. With his team, Kayani also crafted operational strategies, which they experimented with in Swat and the South Waziristan and Khyber agencies.


A complete evaluation of Operation Zarb-i-Azb’s impact and sustainability will take time.


However, certain developments barred him from taking the fight to the next level, ie in North Waziristan. One of the main reasons included the failures of Washington, Kabul and Islamabad to reach a consensus on how to deal with the brand of militants in North Waziristan as well as the peace process with the Afghan Taliban. The issue of Raymond Davis, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and Nato’s strikes on check posts in Salala (which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers), were just some of the incidents that contributed to growing mistrust between Pakistan and the US.

Sharif prioritised internal security and, for that purpose, focused on terrorist networks in North Waziristan. Persistent counterterrorism operations in Karachi and Balochistan were also a reflection of the resolve shown by him. He successfully removed blockades in the way of Pakistan’s counterinsurgency campaign, which architects of this model were reluctant to take on.

It is also a fact that the security establishment was initially confused about the scale and seriousness of the issue and downplayed the threat for several years. The period between 2002 and 2007 was a formative phase for the insurgency in Fata, which by 2009 had developed into a complete insurgent movement across the tribal areas. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, a conglomeration of anti-Pakistan Taliban groups, was formed during this period (2007 to be precise). However, the security forces have since learnt a lot in their efforts against the TTP and have gradually improved their responses, which have included both political initiatives and military operations.

Between 2002 and 2009, the state tried ‘soft’, ‘carrot-and-stick’ and other political solutions, but when the militants started a large-scale insurgency the state was left little choice but to exert its full force to crush the insurgency. This was Kayani’s greatest challenge: how to build consensus on the issue.

In 2009, Operation Rah-i-Rast in Swat saw the beginning of a new approach. Later, operations Bia-Darghalam in Khyber Agency and Rah-i-Nijat in South Waziristan (which continued into 2010) further boosted the security forces’ confidence. These operations have contributed to changing Pakistan’s security landscape.

A major component of Kayani’s counterinsurgency campaign entailed creating public support for the operations, based on the classical concept of counterinsurgency, according to which public support is crucial for military campaigns inside territories. Before the Swat operation, he sought to ensure that all political options were exhausted and then sought parliament’s endorsement before going after the terrorists.

Even during his tenure, there was an opinion among a segment of the security elite that the operations create their own legitimacy and support; Raheel Sharif subscribed generously to this doctrine. He did not wait for the outcome of talks with the terrorists before launching the operation in North Waziristan, nor did he tolerate those so-called good Taliban who resisted the operation.

Despite the successes achieved so far, counterinsurgency is an ongoing challenge and a complete evaluation of its impact and sustainability will take time. But many of Kayani’s apprehensions, which made him reluctant to launch a military operation in North Waziristan, are still relevant. The operation has not completely eradicated the internal security threats. Washington and Kabul are not impressed by Pakistan’s military successes as these have not helped much in reducing the scale of militancy in Afghanistan.

It was expected that Zarb-i-Azb would help repair trust between Islamabad and Washington, but it resulted in more restrictions on support to the military and cuts in Coalition Support Funds. The rehabilitation of people displaced by the conflict is still a mega challenge. Many of the militants uprooted from North Waziristan have now been adding to insecurity in some other parts of the country, mainly in parts of Balochistan and Sindh.

It remains to be seen how the new military leadership will deal with these challenges, but Afghanistan will remain central to most of the security, diplomatic and strategic challenges of the country.

Operation Zarb-i-Azb might have been concluded months ago had Afghanistan and Pakistan cooperated normally on security and counterterrorism. Engaging Afghanistan in a constructive relationship will not only help to balance with India, it will create a more conducive environment for CPEC and other economic initiatives. The country’s image and constructive engagement with the world, especially the West, is also linked to relations with Pakistan’s western neighbour. One should not think that dealing with Afghanistan will be an easy task, but confidence-building measures need to start if the aim is to bring stability to Pakistan and the region at large.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn December 4th, 2016