Anti-insurgency report card

October 20, 2011


THOSE who work in development have an accepted practice for evaluating the performance of a project: after polling stakeholder perceptions, a 'report card' is issued classifying success or failure against measurable indicators.

It is a pity Pakistan has no such document to show how it has fared in countering insurgents since October 2001.

The task of evaluation becomes more difficult when grading the impact of the internal counter-insurgency on external relations. In this case, that would mean taking the perceptions of our neighbours into consideration. How do they think we have fared? The opinions of the Afghans, Indians and our putative ally the US would be relevant.

Arguably, Pakistan may have achieved greater, albeit temporary, success against the insurgents internally; yet from the point of view of our allies, our efforts rate poorly since they accuse Pakistan of supporting insurgent groups. In this sense, we have placed ourselves under bigger problems externally.

Who is responsible for this situation? It is a fact, for instance, that insurgency reared its head in Pakistan after the US attack on Afghanistan in October 2001. After that incursion, militants took refuge in Fata and Pakistan's various cities. Controlling the insurgency became difficult when the actions of militaries on both sides of the border resulted in militants shifting from one jurisdiction to another.

It could be argued that military offensives do not actually reduce the number of insurgents, except marginally, but shifts them around and that is misinterpreted as success.

This dilemma in anti-insurgency operations is vividly portrayed by the case of Swat's militants when, led by Fazlullah, the hard-core fighters took refuge in Afghanistan's Kunar province. Since the US had earlier withdrawn from that region, it became a strategic safe haven for the Afghan and Swat militants.

It allowed them to come together and reorganise attacks on Dir, Bajaur and Chitral in Pakistan, as well as within Afghanistan. One may ask, then, that if this is the situation today, what was the purpose of earlier operations by US forces in Kunar or Nuristan? It was clearly a flawed approach.

Similarly, the Pakistani forces fought with militants and met with fierce resistance from the Taliban when Operation Sherdil was launched in August 2008 in Bajaur. The military claimed that 2,744 terrorists, including 321 foreigners, had been killed and 1,400 injured in the operation. Yet two years after the end of operations in Bajaur, the area remains insecure and is attacked by militants operating from Kunar. A similar pattern can be observed in other Fata areas.A report by Rand Corporation stated: “Pakistan will not be able to deal with the militant threat over the long run unless it does a more effective job of addressing the root causes of the crisis and makes security of the civilian population, rather than destroying the enemy, its top priority. In addition, Pakistan's decision to support some militant groups has been counterproductive.”

This comment challenges the claim that matters have improved as compared to the situation in 2008-09, when large chunks of territory were under the control of hostile groups. True, the territories have been taken back from the insurgents, but it is doubtful whether the security of the population has improved in the long term.

Matters are not helped either when external pressure against Pakistan is increased. The US claims that Pakistan is an unreliable ally because of its support to the Haqqani network. Such recriminations have made the task of ending the insurgency doubly difficult. The question should actually be: is Pakistan complicit or does it lack the capacity to eradicate the militants?

Being complicit means that under-performance has been taking place on purpose; being incapable of dealing with the situation may relate to a lack of capabilities or the adoption of a weak strategy.

In either case, the situation demands that we reformulate our counter-insurgency goals so as to create a convergence between internal and external perceptions. Internal security will not improve otherwise. Secondly, Pakistan needs to enhance its capacities in the areas in which it is weak, particularly in criminal investigation and policing.

We also need to resolve the strategic contradiction that has crept into our external relations; on this count we need to rethink, in consultation with others, our policies relating to Afghanistan and the US.

Three recent developments — the signing of the Indo-Afghan strategic agreement, the extension of the drone attacks to new areas of North Waziristan and the deployment of US forces in the greater Khost area of Afghanistan opposite North Waziristan — indicate a worsening external security situation.

The convergence of these events at the time of the US secretary of state's visit indicates the employment of coercion to shift our policies. The message is clear: cooperate or expect the worst.

The divergence between the US and Pakistan arose after the May 1 raid in Abbottabad that netted Osama bin Laden. It is further encouraged by the belief that since the US will be exiting Afghanistan in December 2014, it makes sense for Pakistan to retain the support of its Afghan proxies.

It is obvious that Pakistani assumptions will shift if the US retains bases inside Afghanistan, as it is presently contemplating, and does not withdraw completely by 2014. If that is the case, it is likely that the insurgency in Afghanistan will continue into the foreseeable future.

Pakistan needs to seriously review its counter-insurgency strategy and ensure that internal as well as external compulsions are addressed collectively. Otherwise, we may be headed towards some unwelcome results. Given our current financial and economic difficulties, it is time that Pakistan's security policies were adjusted. Pakistan's anti-insurgency report card does not, unfortunately, boast high marks.

The writer is chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research in Peshawar.