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In FATA, the war is just starting

By Sushant Sareen
September 26, 2008 17:46 IST
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Having lost all patience with what Newsweek calls 'Pakistan's dangerous double-game' in the War on Terror, the Americans have started baring their fangs and mounted the first ground action inside Pakistani territory by special forces troops.

The storm of protest over violations of sovereignty by the top political leadership of Pakistan and threats of retaliation by the Pakistani army chief was treated with utter disdain by the Americans who have continued bombing suspected terrorist sites in Pakistan. But despite the aggressive posture that the Americans have taken against terrorist sanctuaries and launching pads inside Pakistan, the efficacy of this new policy remains suspect.

If the objective of the new American strategy is to force Pakistan's hand and leave them no option but to clean up the nests of terror in the Pakhtun tribal belt, then it still has a chance to work. But if the aim is to act unilaterally to wipe out terrorist bases inside Pakistan, then the Americans might end up creating a bigger problem, for themselves and for the wider region, than the one that confronts them at present.

Clearly, Washington is facing a Hobson's Choice: if it continues to mollycoddle the Pakistanis and turn a blind eye to the links between the Pakistani military establishment and the Taliban, peace and stability in Afghanistan will never become possible; on the other hand, if the US troops start striking inside Pakistani territory, they could end up confronting an extremely hostile Pakistan army and public, something that will not only widen the theatre of conflict but also severely disrupt the vital supply line of the US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Like the Americans, the Pakistanis too face a grave dilemma. Pakistan can, in an assertion of sovereignty, either obstruct the US war effort by denying transit facilities and logistics support or retaliate by stopping intelligence cooperation and shooting at US drones and personnel. But then it will face the prospect of stiff economic sanctions, which will push the tottering Pakistani economy over the edge. In addition, Pakistan will face international diplomatic isolation. And to top it all, if the situation deteriorates beyond a point, there is a real danger of armed confrontation between Pakistan and the US, something that Pakistan simply cannot sustain.

On the other hand, if the Pakistani authorities do nothing about the increasing US incursions, then they risks massive domestic unrest which will almost certainly destabilise the civilian government.

To a great extent, the answer to the problems being faced by both the US and Pakistan lies with the Pakistan army. But two critical issues hamper the effectiveness of the Pakistan army in being a part of the solution. The first is the jihadist ideology that pervades the rank and file, not just of the ISI but also of rest of the army. It is this mindset that gave rise to the doctrine of 'strategic defiance', a doctrine that still dictates the policy and actions of the army. The ideological affinity that the army, and increasingly the Pakistani people, share with the Islamists makes them look upon the Americans as a bigger enemy and threat to the survival of Pakistan than the Taliban.

The second issue relates to the capacity and capability of the army in fighting the Taliban. Even if by some miracle good sense dawned on the Pakistan army to wipe out the radical Islamists, it will find it very difficult to do so. Until now, the Pakistan army has been worsted by the Taliban in practically every single ground engagement. The only successes that the army has notched up are those in which the Pakistan army has resorted to very heavy aerial bombardment of militant positions by fighter jets, helicopter gunships and heavy artillery. But this 'success' has caused massive collateral damage. Around half a million people have been forced to leave their homes and take refuge in refugee camps. The humanitarian crisis has created a huge amount of resentment and anger which in turn is fuelling the desire for revenge in even ordinary people. Many Pakhtuns feel that their traditions, their way of life, their culture are under assault by the Punjabi dominated Pakistani state operating under the diktats of the Americans.

Bombs from the air are however no substitute for boots on the ground, something that the Americans are finding out in Afghanistan. The ferocious air attacks, in which the Islamists are sitting ducks, will ultimately have to be followed by sending in ground troops to hold territory and enforce the writ of the state. Until now, even after a month and a half of relentless targeting of Taliban positions, the Pakistan army has not even been able to regain control over Taliban strongholds just five kms outside the district headquarters of Swat and Bajaur.

For instance, in the military operation underway in Bajaur as soon as the troops backed by armour moved in for mopping up operations, they faced such fierce resistance that they were forced to retreat. The situation is no different in many other parts of the tribal areas and even settled districts of NWFP. Therefore, in the first instance, the Pakistan army will have to regain control of the territory it has lost to the Taliban. Only after this has been achieved will the second, and more dangerous phase of the war will start.

In the second phase, while the army will be holding territory, it will have to contend with hit and run attacks by the Taliban. The ground troops will open themselves to attacks by the insurgents who will use guerrilla tactics to target both fixed installations as well as supply lines of the military.

This will require massive deployment of troops so that military patrols can be sent out to hunt for the Islamist guerrillas. The terrain will force Pakistan to deploy the larger part of its security forces in this area merely to mount a holding operation in these areas. This in turn will mean disengaging from the Indian border because 9 out of 11 Pakistani corps are located along the Indian front and if relations with India deteriorate, then these forces cannot be used on the Western front against the Taliban. Only after the Pakistan achieves success in the second phase will it be able to enter the third phase -- the hearts-and-minds campaign to win over the Pashtuns who would have suffered during this long, dirty war.

It is entirely possible that in order to protect its eastern flank, Pakistan might reactivate the insurgency in Kashmir so that the Indian army remains enmeshed there and is in no position to pose any threat to Pakistan. One of the reasons for the insurgency in Punjab during the 1980's was Pakistan's involvement in the Afghan jihad against the Soviets and in order to prevent India from coming to any aid of the Soviets, Pakistan destabilised Punjab to embroil the Indian army in an internal conflict. But then this is a strategy that can easily go awry because if things deteriorate beyond a point then India might be forced to launch a limited operation against jihadi targets in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which will then confront Pakistan with a two-front situation. 

Clearly then, Pakistan is facing a very long, brutal, and horrendously expensive (in men and material) war of attrition. A comparison with the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir is apt to understand the magnitude of the problem facing Pakistan. In J&K at the worst of times the estimate of armed terrorists was never more than 4,000-5,000. India has had to commit nearly 400,000 security force personnel to keep control over the situation. In the areas affected by militancy in Pakistan, estimates of armed militants vary from 25,000 to 100,000!

This means a huge military commitment to keep the peace and defeat the Islamists, a commitment which could well be beyond the capacity of the Pakistani state, more so given its security commitments on the border with India which seems to be getting active once again.

There are only two ways this can be avoided: either the Pakistani state succumbs to the Islamists, or the Islamists have a sudden change of heart and decide to bid farewell to arms. But if neither of these two options are available, and Pakistan has to confront the problem, then it will need a huge amount of economic and military assistance from rest of the world, far beyond the one or two billion dollars it is getting at present.

Pakistan is clearly in no position to handle on its own the massive dislocation of people, business, and politics that this war will cause. On the other hand, if Pakistan does not join this war in right earnest, and continues to play a 'double-game' and 'defy' the US, then it will leave the US with no option but to take action -- military, economic and diplomatic -- which again will have devastating consequences for Pakistan and rest of the region.

It is therefore in the interest of the US, of Pakistan and even of India (which will have to bear the brunt of a destabilised Pakistan) if Pakistan is forced to make the necessary course correction and combat Islamic radicalism on its own, of course with lots of help from friends and neighbours.

But if Pakistan is not willing to do this, then regional and global players will have to undertake this unpleasant task. In either case, everyone should be prepared for a long, long war, which is probably just starting.

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Sushant Sareen