Following was at the request of a good friend and well informed Pakistani officer who has a more pessimistic view about ongoing operations. As expected, even in army there are diverse opinions depending on the knowledge and experience of particular officer. In my interactions I found quite a broad range. On one end, some have already declared victory and planning victory parades and elevating their favorite senior officers to high pedestals, others are more realistic and know that the water is more muddier when you get close to it and still others who are quite pessimistic as regional dynamics are beyond Pakistan’s control. This is not unusual as every conflict generates different views in the military that is tasked with tackling the problem. I incorporated some views of tribesmen (most keep their thoughts to themselves as environment is not very conducive for a candid discussion). In addition, many non-Pakistanis are kind enough to candidly share their perspectives and I incorporated that perspective even if I don’t fully agree with that.
Pakistan Army Military Operations – Summary
“War is uncertainty, characterized by friction, chance and disorder”. Clausewitz
From 2003 to 2008, for a variety of reasons, Pakistani state gradually lost control over federally administered tribal areas. The reasons were more related to strategic myopia at the highest level rather than strength of the militants. It took a while before military leadership understood the nature of the threat and started more professional planning, training and overhauling doctrine to face the new threat. The nature of modern militaries is such that from conception to application on the ground takes time.
In post 2008 period, military embarked on a cautious push back. In an effort to limit civilian casualties, civilians were asked to leave the intended area of operation. This approach while beneficial on one level had a serious drawback as militants also moved on to their next rest stop before the start of operations. The nature of the terrain with hills, forests and narrow gorges meant that interdiction attempts will be high risk. In the early part of the operations, Special Services Group (SSG) was used to interdict some escape routes but when casualties mounted, this approach was scaled back. The result was that majority of the militants including important leaders escaped the net. Many mid and high level commanders of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) were eliminated by U.S. drone strikes. By 2012, army was able to take control of major towns of Malakand division and many tribal agencies. Only swamp left was North Waziristan. Under the direction of the office of the Chief of General Staff (CGS), final push towards North Waziristan was finalized and inner circle of Corps Commanders gave the nod for the operation. However, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani didn’t give the final go for reasons best known to him. In my view, his own nature of contemplation and slower decision making process, deteriorating relations with United States and quarrels with political leadership made him think twice. He was criticized for this and some ridiculed him with ‘analysis-paralysis’ syndrome. To be fair to Kayani, people tend to forget the environment in which he was working. General public opinion was not in favor of military operations, army was not trained for the task, security forces had experienced some embarrassing early reversals and state had lost not a small geographic area but lost control over large swaths of a very difficult terrain. Army had gradually asserted control over Malakand division, Kurram, South Waziristan, Mohmand and Bajawar agencies as well as large parts of Orakzai and Khyber agencies during the tenure of Kayani. However, he could have proceeded with North Waziristan operation earlier. When General Raheel Sharif succeeded Kayani in November 2013, he gave the final order and wheels were set in motion for North Waziristan operation. In June 2014, operation was formally started after many announcements asking locals to leave. A large number of militants also listened and moved across the border.
In most operations especially post 2008, army asked everybody to leave and then considered the territory ‘hostile’. Those who remained were viewed with suspicion either as outright ‘hostile’ in sympathy with militants or not serving as ‘gracious hosts’ to the army. Army was given unprecedented authority of kill and capture and they could use artillery and air assets as well as authority to destroy residential and commercial buildings. There is significant local resentment and it is not due to sympathy with militants but tribesmen are distressed by liberal use of bombings. These sentiments could have been ameliorated by more robust engagement of tribesmen and explaining to them the need for some of the measures such as curfews and neutralization of heavily fortified areas and tunnels with artillery and air assets. A large number of tribesmen (not militant sympathizers) from Waziristan have taken refuge in Afghanistan.
In moving forward, one main hurdle is deep suspicion between army and civilian administrators of tribal areas. Currently, there is almost universal denouncement of civilian administration by the army. In my conversations with a number of army officers they consider civilian political agent system as corrupt and inefficient and there is an element of truth in it (even today, many tribesmen recount with fond memory to me the bygone era of British political agents). On the other hand, civilians criticize army for focusing only on kinetic operations and monopolizing all development projects in tribal areas thus not allowing civilian set up to gradually re-assert and they also have a valid point. In current situation, tribesmen know where the power center lies and they work directly with Colonels and Brigadiers. In the long run, army has to hand over to the civilian set up in tribal areas. This is army’s ticket out and no matter how imperfect ultimately civilian structure needs to be put in place in secured areas. Both parties should remember that they are on the same team and need to work together if they want to succeed. When army helped to equip and train police, the performance of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (KPK) provincial police markedly improved. Similar joint efforts can improve working relationship but army should be willing to share power while civilian administrators have to take some risks and go back to work among people.
At general public level the ‘success’ of Operation Zarb-e-Azb is mainly at psychological level where average Pakistani not aware about the nuances came out of the depression and some sense of confidence is visible. Operationally, securing of main towns and major roads removed industrial scale bomb making factories resulting in marked reduction in large scale bombings of military and civilian targets. This also resulted in removal of militants from general population which is an important piece of any counter-insurgency struggle. There has been marked improvement of efficiency of the army. I can see a sea change in terms of morale, training, efficiency, vigor and willing to tough it out in a very harsh terrain. One would not recognize the company, battalion and brigade level commanders of present army when compared with pre 2001 era. War is a great auditor and teacher of institutions. Army has reeled back from a perilous course and learned some very valuable and right lessons from the conflict. This is good omen both for the army and for the country.
The question of Pakistani TTP militants taking refuge in Afghanistan needs special elaboration. First, the nature of Pakistan-Afghanistan border is such that it is very difficult to control cross border movement. In the past, when Afghans and Americans complained about Afghan militants taking refuge on Pakistani territory after attacking targets in Afghanistan, Pakistanis told them that it was beyond their capacity. To my knowledge, up to 2008, Afghans, Americans and Indians had no business with TTP (also hands off as far Baluch were concerned). One needs to make a distinction between intelligence gathering and intelligence based covert operations using local assets. In view of multifaceted challenge, Pakistan’s neighbors as well as western intelligence agencies need information about the cauldron just as Pakistan needs information about threats to its own national interests. Intelligence gathering is an accepted norm (in addition channels are also used especially for negotiating prisoner swaps or release of prisoners for money and Pakistan, Afghanistan, United States and Iran have used the channels for this specific purpose) but one needs to take a long deep breath before embarking on covert operations where unintended consequences usually surpass intended consequences. Afghan and American outrage followed by Indian outrage at Mumbai carnage in 2008 changed the dynamics. All three parties were convinced that Pakistan will not change its behavior and in internal debate, hawks got an upper hand. Now, TTP became another bargaining chip in the dirty games and national narrative on each side became more confused and erratic. In February 2013, commander of militants in Bajawar Faqir Muhammad and in October 2013 Hakimullah Mahsud’s envoy Latif Mahsud were arrested in Afghanistan. There was some confusion regarding Latif and he was snatched by U.S. Special Forces from intelligence personnel of National Directorate of Security (NDS) in Afghanistan. Later, he was handed over to Pakistan and a shaved and more humbled Latif is now singing like a canary. If Pakistan had no interest in going after Afghan Taliban on its territory then surely Afghans and Americans were in no hurry to go after Mullah Fazlulluah parked in Nazyan in eastern Ningarhar province.
The complexity of current situation can be judged from events in remote areas of Ningarhar and Kunar where there is great pow wow of Afghan Taliban, Pakistani TTP and Daesh. Pakistani militants who escaped from Pakistan army’s operation in Orakzai and Khyber agencies crossed the border into eastern Afghanistan and strengthened the hand of nascent Daesh. With this newly acquired muscle, Daesh starting from Shinwar district cleared the Taliban and expanded influence in Achin, Nazyan, Spin Ghar, Khogyani and Chaparhar districts. When Pakistanis obliged Washington, U.S. drones started to hunt for Fazlullah and he narrowly escaped. Afghans and United States gave a free pass to Afghan Taliban while Tehran happily handed some cash so that Afghan Taliban could thin the ranks of Daesh. Afghan Taliban assembled a large posse and went after Daesh and in the process downgraded their structure. Since the start of 2016, U.S. has expanded its drone policy against Daesh in eastern Afghanistan with more wider targeting authority. Militants will now likely move towards Kunar and drones will also likely follow them there. Drones need to be integrated with Afghan security forces and local militias to prevent militants from entrenching in a specific geographic area. It will be interesting to see how the conflict unfolds in Kunar as there will be a volatile mix of militants from Taliban, Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbadin Hikmatyar, local Salafi armed groups and newly arrived Daesh as well as Pakistani militants who have crossed over from Bajawar.
All concerned parties (Pakistan, United States, Afghanistan, Iran, India; in that order of importance) suffer from the same illness and that is sacrificing long term interests for short term gains. The desire of ‘instant gratification’ is so strong that they lose the larger picture. All this is happening in the backdrop of deep suspicions about motives of the ‘other’. Reminds me Henry Kissinger’s words quoted in Beschloss’s May Day about Cold war when he summed up the behavior of the two super powers as ‘like two heavily armed men feeling their way around a room, each believing himself in mortal peril from the other, whom he assumes to have perfect vision. Each tends to ascribe to the other a consistency, foresight and coherence that its own experience belies’. Some adult supervision is needed at many levels where each party understands its own limitations and finds ways to work on common grounds despite genuine differences.
“They who run for cover with every reverse, the timid and faint of heart, will have no part in winning the war. Harry Hopkins
Note: These views are based my interaction with diverse groups of people not only well informed but also ordinary folks including Pakistanis, Indians, Afghans and Americans as well as travels to the region.
April 17, 2016