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Tackling an insurgency

October 22, 2012


PAKISTAN is infested with a variety of Islamist militant outfits: transnational groups, nationally focused anti-state groups, and sectarian organisations, among others.

Out of these, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), linked as it is to some of the transnational and sectarian groups, has posed the greatest threat to the Pakistani state. It demonstrated its disruptive potential in the 2007-09 period by taking over parts of Fata and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. And while the state claims that the group’s back has been broken for good, the TTP was never really dislodged from its Fata strongholds (they are also believed to be operating from Afghanistan) and Mullah Fazlullah and his militants appear to be raising their head again in Swat.

So what does this mean for our future? Leave the nuanced arguments aside — what about the questions an average Pakistani has on his or her mind: is the TTP coming back with a vengeance? How long will this go on? Is living with the fear of terrorism the new normal for times to come?

Over the past year, I have been studying various South Asian terrorist and insurgent outfits. A number of these cases are comparable to Pakistan in terms of context, state capacity, etc. and thus their lessons may be instructive for Pakistanis seeking answers to the above questions.

Here are some of the salient observations:

Evidence is overwhelming that the best opportunity to tackle an insurgency is not to let it take off in the first place. Conflict prevention is far more likely to work than efforts to mitigate and terminate internal conflicts.

Interestingly, virtually in all cases, the build-up from mere tensions to violence occurs largely because states underestimate the challenge and therefore respond either with indifference or in a heavy-handed manner to quash the problem once and for all. Both reactions tend to increase sympathy for the to-be insurgents.

The defining moment is when the state’s responses lead the radicals among the ranks of the opposition to begin overshadowing the earlier leadership that has been part of the ‘system’ for some time and is often looking for a compromise and personal and collective gains for the group. Once these actors have been sidelined by more radical voices, a violent campaign against the state is a matter of when, not if.

Next, once the conflict is under way, one of two trajectories is most common: either the insurgents cannot stand up against the state’s might and are crushed very quickly; or the insurgents, through a combination of guerrilla and terrorist tactics, manage to hold their own, in which case the conflict has very little hope of swift termination. In fact, conflict termination is toughest for the first few months and years as both sides tend to fight with the primary goal of attaining a position of strength before exploring a compromise solution.

Conflict termination occurs either because one side wins decisively or because there is a lingering stalemate with no prospects of victory for either side.

A decisive loss could be partial or complete. If an insurgent is defeated in a major theatre but still manages to maintain residual capacity, it can revive, though usually not with the same ferocity. (There are notable exceptions like the Afghan Taliban but that is an insurgency against an external power portrayed as an ‘occupying’ force which makes the situation incomparable to truly internal conflicts.)

However, partially defeated organisations can continue to perpetrate random acts of terrorism virtually at will and often do so to keep the threat of a comeback alive. They are also likely to become cruder and more desperate in their targeting, perhaps to cover up their loss of capacity, at this stage.

A lingering stalemate, on the other hand, causes termination because war weariness tends to set in and fighters and sympathisers of the insurgents as well as the pro-state citizenry are no longer willing to back violence. By the time you get to this stage though, excessive violence has usually already occurred at enormous cost.

The TTPs case is of a conglomerate that was appeased by the state in the initial years. The interlocutors in Fata who had waged jihad under state supervision for years were still amenable to finding a middle road after 9/11. But they were either bumped off or lost traction, only to allow the Baitullah and Hakeemullah Mehsuds of the world to rise and use violence as their primary tool. The TTP proved that it could hold its own in Fata and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa while it kept pricking the state in the mainland.

Its loss in Swat and retreat to Fata signifies a partial loss; the current situation in Fata reflects a lingering stalemate; and growing TTP attacks over the past few months signify the group’s attempts to emphasise its ability to return just as actions like attacking Malala Yousufzai and threatening the media in its aftermath point to the increasing crudeness and desperation to keep their fear alive.

What does this mean for Pakistan?

First, the TTP is not done and dusted.

Second, it can and probably will continue perpetrating acts of terror in the northwest and perhaps again increasingly in the rest of the country.

Third, because it has suffered immensely at the hands of the Pakistani military and also because it has all but lost sympathy within Pakistan — the fact that the TTP felt the need to put out a six-page explanation to justify targeting Malala points to their realisation of this reality — it is unlikely to re-emerge as a successful insurgency akin to its Swat campaign of 2008-09.

Fourth, the Pakistani security apparatus will have to go after the TTP’s centre of gravity in Waziristan(s) if it is to inflict total defeat and this will have to happen while there is some public support for such action by the state.

Fifth, yes, Pakistanis will have to learn to live with a reasonable possibility of acts of terrorism in their towns and cities till a total defeat is inflicted on the TTP. To mitigate this as much as possible in the interim, civilian law enforcement and intelligence will have to be beefed up.

Fifth, no, the TTP cannot run over Pakistani state defences to wrest power as the Afghan Taliban did in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.