July 15, 2009


Lions and Jackals: Pakistan’s Emerging Counterinsurgency Strategy (Haider Ali Hussein Mullick, 7/15/09, Foreign Affairs)

In the fall, Major General Tariq Khan, at the time commanding a squadron of the Pakistani army's paramilitary force, the Frontier Corps, realized that his troops needed to radically change tactics. With that in mind, he launched Operation Shirdil (Lion Heart) in Bajaur, a tribal area that abuts Afghanistan and was a hub of the Taliban. With the aid of junior officers, he shifted from clearing operations to population security. He ordered troops to patrol the streets and worked with tribal lashkars (militias) and jirgas (councils) to identify and capture irreconcilable Taliban. Most importantly, he worked to build troop morale and encourage camaraderie between Punjabi officers and Pashtun soldiers. What might be called the Bajaur Experiment was a success; at the same time the Pakistani government and military were signing a peace deal with the Taliban in the Swat Valley, top Taliban commanders surrendered unconditionally to the Frontier Corps in Bajaur.

But while the Bajaur Experiment was clearly effective against the Taliban and bolstered troop morale, questions remained about its sustainability and replicability. On one hand, Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Kiyani, had already initiated in 2008 a decisive shift toward this kind of counterinsurgency against domestic extremists in arms procurement and military curriculum. But on the other, the top-down approach was slow and was halted by bickering among a dysfunctional Defense Ministry, a turf-conscious Interior Ministry, and ineffective parliamentary committees for defense and national security. And in practice, Central Command still faced a lack of adequate training and equipment for troops. Further, it remained unwilling to conduct a domestically unpopular counterinsurgency program against Pakistanis and sever ties with anti-India Taliban in Afghanistan.

This would change in April, when the Taliban started to surge outward from Swat Valley toward the capital. The government -- confronted with the Taliban onslaught and international pressure -- managed to build a broad political consensus for counterinsurgency. Bolstered by popular support for the war -- a recent poll by World Public Opinion put it at 81 percent -- the military was finally willing to identify the Taliban as the biggest existential threat to Pakistan. Soon, the army kicked off a 150,000-troop campaign in the tribal badlands, of which 30,000 troops were dedicated to the Swat and Malakand areas. The high-spirited Bajaur veterans were ready to share their experiences with junior officers and asked to become part of the decision-making process. With that, a counterinsurgency strategy based on the Bajaur Experiment began to spread from the bottom up.

As in Bajaur, officers decided to execute a presence-oriented approach: troops cleared areas; established small bases inside populated areas, instead of drawing back to large bases; enforced curfews; and aided fledgling local governments. Unlike past operations, where the military failed to block escape routes during actions on the Taliban's mountain hideouts, this time they applied a "corner, choke, and contain" strategy. Junior officers also built better local intelligence networks and were careful to evacuate refugees before using heavy artillery against Taliban strongholds. Due to increasing anti-Taliban sentiment and a more positive and lasting military presence on the ground, tribal lashkars were willing to help.

Encouragingly, the culture of the military was also changing. Frontier Corps officers had often been considered incompetent and compromised because of their ethnic links to the predominantly Pashtun Taliban. But now Punjabi junior officers followed Khan's lead and began reaching out to Pashtun soldiers to foster a sense of trust and goodwill. With public support for their campaign, a new presence-oriented strategy, and a more inclusive military culture that valued innovation and dissent, troop morale was on the rise and victory followed.

It is the paradoxical nature of Al Qaeda's project that "winning" just makes them easier targets and provides otherwise reluctant regimes with reason to target them. This isn't a losable war.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 15, 2009 8:22 AM
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