Is It COIN, Or Not?

by Joshua Foust on 7/18/2009

And does it matter? Haider Ali Hussein Mullick has an interesting essay in Foreign Affairs about “Pakistan’s emerging counterinsurgency strategy.”

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.

Well, it hasn’t been quite that simple. Despite a similar “population-centric” approach in the Swat Valley, there remain millions of refugees who fled in terror as the Taliban ran away and the government swept through—hardly what one would normally consider a success. While Mullick is right to note that the U.S. should try to help Pakistan in every way in its fight against the extremists in its Northwest, there is surprisingly little buy-in from the U.S. on that front (for a variety of reasons).

But then there’s the question of whether Pakistan’s new strategy is really a counterinsurgency in the first place. A few months ago, Frontline World aired a report from the NWFP and FATA in Pakistan which featured video of entire villages in Bajaur erased from the land. The Pakistani Army said they had to destroy these villages to save them, essentially admitting that the Taliban was so entrenched the only way to remove it was utter devastation. It’s why tens of thousands fled to refugee camps during the worst of the fighting.

The Globe and Mail recently noted that the Pakistani military’s plans for Waziristan are quite different from its policies in Swat:

However, while the much-lauded Swat operation saw some 20,000 ground troops sweep across the area and surrounding districts, the plan for Waziristan is a wholly different type of military operation. It will use artillery, jet fighters and attack helicopters to pound the Islamic guerrillas, with limited use of “boots on the ground” in the treacherous terrain of Waziristan, where the Taliban are deeply entrenched in mountainous landscape that strongly favours guerrilla warfare.

U.S. pilotless drone aircraft, armed with missiles and sophisticated technology to home in on individuals, are likely to also be used to augment the Pakistani air power.

Such an operation is unlikely to destroy the enemy, analysts believe, and it will leave in place some Taliban warlords that international forces in Afghanistan regard as a significant cross-border threat. It will also raise questions about the seriousness of Pakistan’s fight against insurgents after the country won international praise for its efforts in Swat.

That is decidedly not a population-centric counterinsurgency, as Mullick argues the Pakistani Army is adopting. Newsweek drove the point home further still. After interviewing many of the refugees nervously awaiting a return to their homes, they say:

Even if the Army keeps its pledge to stick around for a while, it runs the risk of appearing as an occupying force in this region unused to centralized control. It is also unclear if the government could deliver better governance, and access to justice, relief, rehabilitation, and economic opportunity—the main agents in turning popular support away from the militants.

Indeed, as RAND analyst Christine Fair argued recently, one of the big problems is the Pakistani military spent the last several billion dollars of aid ignoring the development of any sort of actual counterinsurgency capability. The U.S.’s solution is to throw yet more money at the problem and hope this time it’s not squandered again. They need police, administrators, all the institutions that build a civil society. But they haven’t spent any time developing those things.

So, what is Pakistan’s deal? Is it going to do the very difficult, very dangerous work of creating a permanent absence of the Taliban from this area? Or is it going to go halfway, bomb the tribal areas like a British imperialist, and flee back to Rawalpindi? Unfortunately, right now it looks like the latter. Pakistan, despite all the pretty talk to the contrary, has not demonstrated a strong interest in really destroying the extremists along its border with Afghanistan.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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